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Santa Rosa tests new program to clean up after the homeless

Rodney Hill surveyed the corner where Davis Street meets the southbound Highway 101 offramp in Santa Rosa’s West End neighborhood. What he saw troubled him.

Discarded coffee cups and noodle containers, piles of dirty clothing and used hypodermic needles littered the weedy patch between a city guardrail and a concrete highway sound barrier.

But unlike the thousands of motorists and pedestrians who pass the dumping ground daily, Hill pulled on a pair of work gloves Wednesday morning and began raking up the detritus left behind by people who, like him, are homeless.

“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you have to act homeless,” Hill said.

Hill is one of the first people to participate in a new taxpayer-funded pilot program in Santa Rosa that pays homeless people $50 a day to clean up the messes left by other homeless people.

The idea is to put homeless people to work solving one of the biggest problems created by the local homeless population.

“There is a huge willing workforce within the homeless community, so let’s take advantage of that as a way to address the environmental impacts created by all this trash,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities, which is spearheading the effort.

The program is one of several initiatives that Santa Rosa has funded to expand the reach and effectiveness of the county’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, or HOST.

Others include vouchers to place people in hotel rooms or campgrounds while they wait for permanent housing, relocation expenses for people who just need to get home and a homeless hotline. All were funded by $415,000 approved in August by the City Council.

Tapping members of the homeless population to help clean up encampments is one of the first and most visible signs of how that extra money is being spent in the community.

The program is being called the HOST Conservation Corps. Only a handful of people have participated to date, but Holmes expects to soon have a roster of about 25 people who are reliable and willing to tackle the unglamorous task.

Wednesday’s outing, the program’s second, began at 7:30 a.m. with a safety training for the three participants who heard about the program through services they receive from Catholic Charities.

Hill, 50, said he has been living in his van for the past couple of months at the county’s safe parking location at the county administration center. He said he didn’t sign up for the cleanup program for the money so much as out of a sense of appreciation for the services he has received.

“I just want to help out.” Hill said. “They’ve done so much for me.”

He and others certainly earned their keep. Accompanied for most of the morning by a Santa Rosa police officer, the team cleaned up Fremont Park, Olive Park, the Joe Rodota Trail and several West End locations.

By the time they were done, a rented trailer was overflowing with garbage, including more than a dozen black plastic bags of trash, two junked lawn mowers, a baby carrier and a huge plastic bin full of metal and lumber.

The first outing last week also focused on the West End, a neighborhood where a high number of homeless congregate because of the shelter and soup kitchen located there.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm was present for that inaugural clean up effort and was “ecstatic” to see a collaborative problem-solving approach at work.

“I think what they are doing is a sea change,” Schwedhelm said of the HOST program. “It’s a cultural change of looking dynamically at a complex problem and bringing together five or six different groups to cooperate to solve it.”

Holmes said HOST’s Conservation Corps program, which is not to be confused with the youth development organization Conservation Corps North Bay, should be more effective than just having city parks crews pick up the garbage.

One is that homeless people are more likely to take responsibility for themselves if they see that their actions are causing work for others they have relationships with, she said.

“It’s a very close-knit community, and they know each other and they’re probably going to listen when someone says to them ‘Hey, I had to clean that up last week,’?” Holmes said.

It also puts money in the pockets of people who badly need it, she said. Only those who are actively working with the HOST program to find housing will be allowed to participate. So far the program has been paying people with gift cards to stores like Target.

Clearly not everyone the HOST team encounters welcomes their assistance. Soon after the team contacted a group of people who had spent the night in the bushes in Fremont Park, a man carrying a bicycle frame over his shoulder stormed out of the park, yelled something unintelligible, and smashed a jar of peanut butter on the Fourth Street sidewalk.

Nelson Hogue had a more relaxed reaction to his contact with the HOST team and eviction from the park. He retreated to the entryway of a nearby building and strummed away on an electric guitar with four strings.

The 43-year-old Nashville native said he may take the HOST team up on their offer to consider paying for him to return home, where he has friends and family.

Hogue said he has been living on the streets in California by choice for about four years. He said he lives on about $20 a day and can’t afford to return home, where he’d like to see about getting a book published. “I’m not homeless. I just walked away from everything,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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