Santa Rosa police clear half of homeless encampment at Fremont Park

Some of the dozens of residents simply dragged their tents to another part of the park, leading to some loud arguments.|

Going tent to tent on Wednesday morning, Santa Rosa police cleared homeless residents from the western half of Fremont Park in downtown, where their presence near a grove of redwood trees constituted a fire hazard, according to city authorities. Those living in the eastern half of the plaza were not required to leave.

The encampment at the 1.7-acre park, also known as Cancer Survivors Plaza, had grown substantially over the past month, the latest in a series of large unsanctioned homeless encampments on public property within the city this year. On a recent weeknight, the nonprofit Sonoma County Acts of Kindness served dinner to 105 people living in the park off Fourth Street.

Wednesday’s police action resulted in no arrests, according to Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, and served as a reminder of how intractable the problem has become: it marked at least the fourth large-scale eviction of homeless people in and around the city in the past six months, since over 200 people were forced to leave the Joe Rodota Trail in late January.

“Good morning, this is the police,” said Santa Rosa Police Officer Jeff Travers, speaking through a tent flap shortly before 8 a.m.

“I don’t like people waking me up,” explained Travers, between wake-up calls, “so I try to be as nice as possible.”

The disbandment order came after inspections conducted over the weekend by the Santa Rosa Fire Department determined that the western half of the encampment — the area under a grove of redwoods — presented a fire hazard. Only those people living in that part of the park were cleared out. Some left the plaza altogether. Some accepted services offered by an outreach team from Catholic Charities.

But others simply dragged their tents to the eastern half of the park, increasing the density of its population and leading to some loud arguments.

“If folks choose to move to the eastern side of the park, we are still engaging them and inviting them” to use housing services, said David Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services.

Asked if there were plans to clear out the eastern half of the park, Gouin did not rule out that move, saying the city will continue to “assess and monitor the situation.” He raised the possibility that, with more residents in that space, social distancing could become an issue.

“What’s the health and safety consideration on that front?” he said.

During their inspections, fire officials found “multiple signs of discarded ash and burn materials” from cooking fires, according to assistant fire marshal Paul Lowenthal. The danger is compounded, he said, by the redwoods, “which burn very quickly, and very hot,” he added, “and those are immediately adjacent to the residential buildings on Fifth Street.”

Lowenthal also pointed out that there have been several “encampment-related fires” this season, most notably a July 13 blaze near Stony Point Road that originated in an abandoned home frequented by homeless people. That blaze threatened homes on Muledeer Lane in southwest Santa Rosa before it was contained.

Some in the homeless village were skeptical of the reasons given to clear them out.

“They had to find something,” said James Hover, while gathering his belongings and soothing the nerves of his pit bull, Tank.

Like many in the encampment, Hover had previously lived beneath Highway 101 in the downtown corridor, where authorities cleared out more than 100 people a month ago. He’d been at Fremont Park for “a couple weeks.” Early Tuesday morning, he was awakened by Santa Rosa police, who informed him that he would need to move by 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Advocates for the homeless have pointed out the city’s failure to provide the encampment with hand-washing stations and adequate bathrooms — there is only one portable toilet to serve over 100 people — contribute to the health threat that may eventually be used to justify their eviction.

Local governments, including the city and county, have turned to a range of emergency and temporary housing options to give homeless people more stable and safe shelter in the pandemic, setting up sanctioned camps in other parts of Santa Rosa, leasing out hotel rooms and making state trailers available at the county fairgrounds.

The county authorized spending up to $12 million alone on the package of housing solutions used to help disband the sprawling Joe Rodota Trail camp in January.

Wednesday’s enforcement action brought some relief for nearby business people, including Thea, a cosmetologist who works in a salon close to the plaza. While the salon is now closed, it was open for several weeks while Fremont Park’s homeless population spiked.

Thea, who declined to share her last name, citing privacy concerns and the sensitivity of issues surrounding homeless people, said she has empathy for those living on the streets. But she also felt the situation was getting out of control.

Going to work felt, at times, “uncomfortable and unsafe,” she said.

The parking lot behind her building was often used as a bathroom. A neighbor informed the salon that security camera footage showed people “climbing the building, trying to find a way in,” she said.

Once the southwestern quadrant of the plaza was cleared on Wednesday, city workers in white, Tyvek coveralls loaded abandoned possessions and detritus into a dump truck that had backed onto the brown grass.

Several stragglers slowed their work. One of them was Kurt, a man in his 60s whose tent was affixed with a jaunty American flag. He’d been one of the encampment’s early arrivals, and had been planning to clear out soon, anyway.

“It’s been getting crowded — too many people in the same space,” he said, declining to share his last name. When that happens, “things get unpredictable, they get violent.”

Rather than migrate to the east side of the park, Kurt accepted an offer from the Catholic Charities’ outreach team to stay in the Sandman hotel Wednesday night.

As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, 24 individuals and households from Fremont Park had accepted the nonprofit’s services. Two of those had been placed in permanent supportive housing, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

Meanwhile, her team is working to find more permanent housing for Fremont Park residents it has placed in hotels. The team will also stay engaged with homeless people who, for a variety of reasons, have turned down shelter.

“We continue to work with people no matter where they are,” said Holmes.

Terry Rowan was among the homeless advocates watching the police action Wednesday and voiced dismay about the sweep.

“What they’re doing is legal,” he said. “It just happens to be immoral.”

Rowan criticized the pattern that has emerged in Santa Rosa — encampments are shut down in one place, and invariably spring up in another — and he described Wednesday’s clearance as “busy work in a bankrupt system.”

“Not bankrupt in terms of money,” he added. “But in terms of decency, and strategy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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