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Santa Rosa prepares to clear out Homeless Hill

Forum on Homeless Hill

The city will host a community meeting on July 10 to outline a program to address the health, safety and fire issues stemming from the homeless encampment at Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road. The 6 p.m. meeting will be held at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Rd.

Santa Rosa officials have cleared out Homeless Hill before.

Teams of outreach specialists, public works crews and police officers have periodically swept through the longtime encampment on the wooded, city-owned hillside above the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road.

On Friday, crews cut down weeds and built a fire line on the outskirts of the tent community, seeking to protect the adjacent neighborhood from small fires that break out near the camp all too frequently.

But people always came back, seeking sanctuary in the shade beneath the eucalyptus trees and overgrown brush between the Calvary Catholic Cemetery and Congregation Shomrei Torah.

This time, however, Santa Rosa it trying to ensure they won’t return.

Complaints from neighbors, fire danger and liability concerns have convinced the city that the time has come to clean up Homeless Hill once and for all.

To succeed, the city is trying to do a better job of helping the inhabitants find permanent housing, something in short supply in a city with an acute housing crisis and a maxed-out shelter system.

So in conjunction with the cleanup effort, the city is reopening the 50-bed shelter it closed just three months ago and beefing up social services aimed at helping people find permanent housing.

“This new program is much more about providing people an avenue out of homelessness and into housing,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities.

The city has for years operated a 50-bed winter shelter in the gymnasium of the 138-bed Sam Jones Hall in the southwest corner of the city. The main shelter is full with 200 people on the waiting list. The winter shelter program ended for the season March 31.

That program was largely aimed at getting people out of the elements during the wet, cold winter months, but it provided little services beyond shelter. People spent the night on the gymnasium floor and were required to depart early the next morning.

This new “housing first” program will be very different, Holmes said.

Last month, the City Council authorized spending up to $600,000 to reopen the shelter and refocus it into a year-round, housing-focused operation. That includes a half-dozen additional staff, three of whom will be trained in helping with housing.

Holmes said the nonprofit is currently hiring: one housing locater, a real estate professional focused on identifying available housing in the community; one housing navigator, a social worker trying to direct people to the most appropriate housing situation; and one housing stabilization case manager, responsible for helping orchestrate the services people need to stay housed.

There is also about $100,000 in “rapid rehousing” funds to put people up in motels if need be, or to pay for them to be reunited with out-of-area family members, Holmes said.

The expanded shelter is expected to open in mid to late July, she said.

To make both shelters more accommodating, Catholic Charities has relaxed the shelter rules, Holmes said.

People who leave the shelter won’t be excluded from it for 90 days, as in the past, she said. People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol won’t automatically be turned away, she said. Instead there will be a code of conduct agreement.

There will also be storage bins where people can keep their stuff, transportation provided from the encampment to the shelter, and help getting pets certified as companion animals, potentially allowing them to stay at the shelter, she said.

Outreach workers headed to Homeless Hill on Friday morning to explain the program, and it was well received, Holmes said.

Police, meanwhile, conducted compliance checks Friday at approximately 50 homeless camps throughout the city, joining with outreach workers from Catholic Charities and Social Advocates for Youth. Five of the 85 people contacted were arrested for outstanding warrants and one person was arrested for providing a false name, police said.

On Homeless Hill, the city unveiled another element of its new strategy, dispatching workers to reduce the danger of fires spreading from the encampment. A crew from the Sonoma County probation department used weed-whackers and a tractor to cut a fire break in the dry grasses on the perimeter of the hill.

A number of small fires have broken out in recent months, and firefighters want to make sure the fuels on the hill are reduced, said Assistant Fire Marshall Paul Lowenthal.

“Fires pose a risk to those occupying encampments and to the community surrounding the open space,” Lowenthal said.

At a City Council forum on homeless solutions recently, liability concerns were cited by city staff as a key reason for cleaning up the hillside. The property has been owned by the city for years, eyed for a Fountaingrove Parkway-like extension linking Farmers Lane with Kawana Springs Road and Yolanda Avenue.

Once people depart, a later effort will involve removing brush and cutting limbs off trees up to 6 feet, he said. The area will be monitored to ensure camping does not return to the hill, though what form that takes remains to be seen.

A visit to the hill Friday morning found dozens of people living in cluttered tent sites. Piles of garbage, clothing and bicycle parts were strewn about. A couple of large pit bulls roamed the area, and residents asked no photos be taken.

Nastajia Edwards, 30, said she’d lived on the hill on and off for 13 years. There were only a handful of people staying there initially, which made it easier to keep it tidy, she said. But now so many come and go that managing their activities is impossible, she said. The Santa Rosa native argued the encampment should be allowed to continue in some more-sanctioned form with facilities and services.

“They’re not going to do anything with the property, dude,” Edwards said. “It’s better for us to be up here than downtown under the bridges.”

She’s referring to the Highway 101 overpasses at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets, which have become crowded with homeless people in part because of their proximity to downtown services and permissive law enforcement policies during winter months.

If the pilot program is a success, however, those overpasses are also slated for more aggressive intervention efforts, according to the city.

“If we can prove the effectiveness of this pilot, then we’ll be looking to duplicate it elsewhere,” Holmes said.

Edwards said she was skeptical but would give the new program a try. But only if her family members could come with her. And her boyfriend. And her pit bull.

Forum on Homeless Hill

The city will host a community meeting on July 10 to outline a program to address the health, safety and fire issues stemming from the homeless encampment at Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road. The 6 p.m. meeting will be held at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Rd.

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