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Santa Rosa police clear Highway 101 homeless camps

Santa Rosa police conducted sweeps of homeless camps along a six-block stretch of Highway 101 underpasses early Tuesday morning, leading to at least one arrest and continuing a cycle of homeless encampments building up and then being cleared around the city.

Officers blocked the underpasses off to traffic and began directing the homeless residents to leave the camps at around 7 a.m., according to housing advocates who were at the scene of the Ninth Street underpass at around 9 a.m.

The sweep targeted camps along the underpasses from Third Street to College Avenue, said Sgt. Chris Mahurin, public information officer for the SRPD.

A team with Catholic Charities made contact with 54 people affected by Tuesday’s sweeps, Mahurin said. Of those, 13 took shelter at the city’s Sam Jones homeless shelter, 22 signed up to receive other assistance and the rest dispersed.

A number of city bulldozer operators waited as police cleared out the remaining camp residents from the longstanding collection of tents and makeshift shelters that had grown in recent weeks. The city cleared three homeless camps in other parts of the city over a two week stretch in late February and early March.

Mahurin said 95 cubic yards of debris were removed from the camps Tuesday.

Jesse Johnson, a 38-year-old man who described himself as a three-year resident of the city, was packing his belongings onto an unstable bicycle as the bulldozers waited. Johnson had taken shelter beneath the highway for the past three months, he said. He did not know where he would head to next but intended to continue sleeping outside.

“I don’t sleep well in a homeless shelter,” he said. He’s been pushed around the city by sweeps, he said, to the point where he knows some of the police officers well. The camp under the highway had at times been dangerous, Johnson said. Specifically, he cited a March 20 incident at the underpass where a man had driven his car into another man seated astride a motorcycle following a quarrel.

Another man, who did not want to give his name but said he was 36, was packing items into trash bags. He had not been staying under the highway but had left items with friends there, he said. He did not know where he would be spending the night, he said.

The sweeps, he said, are “just a Band-Aid.”

Two advocacy workers from Sonoma Applied Village Services, which seeks to provide housing to the unsheltered, according to its website, who were watching over the sweep agreed it would not have long-term benefits.

“It’s a cycle,” Cheryl Rood said. Homeless camps were becoming more spread out in the city, she said.

As the underpass encampments had grown, complaints from neighboring city residents about trash, drug use and fires had also grown, SRPD Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said.

Police and a homeless outreach services team visited the camps for “several weeks,” ahead of Tuesday morning, to offer camp residents alternatives for shelter or storage for their belongings, as required by law, Mahurin said.

He said no plans are in place yet for the next camp clearance. Before a sweep is scheduled, police meet with stakeholders and representatives from various city departments, to determine the areas of highest priority, Mahurin said. Police also work with Sonoma County Department of Health Services to assess and minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Police made one arrest during the sweeps, which came as they cleaned the Ninth Street encampment. The man who was arrested had previously been approached by a reporter as he rushed to move a number of bicycles before the police cleared the underpass. “I don’t have time,” he responded when asked about an interview.

SRPD arrested the man, Michael Craig, who was in his 40s, on charges of outstanding warrants and possession of methamphetamine, Wolf said. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court Case and subsequent cases dictate much of how law enforcement can interact with homeless people. Agencies must provide storage for those residents’ personal belongings, for example. There is leeway for officers to decide which items are belongings and which are trash, Wolf said.

With Craig in the back of the police car, an officer told him he could only have one of his several bicycles taken to the jail with him and stored in the property room as his possession and asked him to pick one.

“I can’t do that,” an audibly distressed Craig said.

“I’ll just pick it then,” the officer said, before he slammed the squad car door shut.

Staff Writers Kaylee Tornay and Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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