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Santa Rosa's homeless population faces cold nights on streets

From a bench in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, Rick Robinson glanced up at the temperature sign high on the U.S. Bank building on a gray, overcast Sunday morning. The red digits read 30.

Robinson, 58, said he had spent the night sleeping in the alcove of a Fourth Street shop, affording him a modicum of shelter and enabling him to stay reasonably warm.

“I just crawl inside the sleeping bag and zip it up,” he said, with the bag’s hood covering his head. “The tough part is getting up,” he said.

It was about 9 a.m. and the city square’s unofficial homeless population was stirring, with several people packing their gear in the middle of three towering redwoods on the west side of Mendocino Avenue.

“It’s a fairy ring. It’ll keep you warm,” Michael Campos, 33, said of the gathering spot while lighting a cigarette. Campos, who grew up in Guerneville, said he had been homeless for 21 years and wasn’t comfortable overnight.

“It was freezing,” he said, despite three layers of clothing: a nylon shirt, hoodie and black leather jacket. “Harley Davidson leather,” he said. “Quality leather.”

The mercury bottomed out at 27 degrees before dawn Sunday at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, the National Weather Service said. On Friday, the agency issued a freeze alert for the weekend, warning that people remaining outdoors would be at risk for hypothermia, a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature triggered by prolonged exposure to cold.

A cluster of people toting bags and bundles of belongings gathered on the stage at the south end of the square. Campos said the city commons, the site of festivals and political rallies in fairer weather, is a gathering spot for men and women who sleep on the streets of downtown Santa Rosa.

“It’s a society,” he said, noting that “the cops haven’t bothered us.”

Campos said he can’t seek refuge in homeless shelters because the crowding gives him an anxiety attack. Years on the street have been rough, he said, “but made me a lot stronger.”

Sonoma County’s most recent homeless count, conducted on the streets one day last January, found there were 3,107 homeless people, including 1,037 who had shelter and 2,070 living in cars or sleeping on the street. The total was 27 percent lower than the 2013 count of 4,280 homeless people, a decline attributed to the improving economy.

In August, county supervisors discussed an ambitious plan to eliminate homelessness through a regional campaign to create new affordable housing for 2,000 people - at a cost of up to $110 million.

Nadine LaRose, who said she slept under the freeway Saturday night into Sunday morning, said the sub-freezing temperature caused burning in her arthritic knee. LaRose, a Santa Rosan who said she’s been homeless since her rental house burned down four years ago, said the shelters are full and she missed out on a housing voucher.

“I don’t drink; I don’t do drugs,” she said. “I have no way of keeping my body warm - except a blanket.”

LaRose said she functions as a “minister” to street people.

Her companion, who gave his name as Paul and said he was from Richmond, said he had been booted out of a rehab program for smoking a cigarette. “She’s trying to keep me straight,” he said, referring to LaRose.

“I don’t really have much to say,” Paul said. “I’m freezin’. It’d be nice to be inside.”

Robinson, who had his gear neatly stowed in a backpack and a duffel bag, was wearing a T-shirt under a sweatshirt and a thick winter coat he said he received from the Church of the Incarnation on Mendocino Avenue. A Bakersfield native, Robinson said he’d been homeless for five years.

Winter is no better for the homeless in Bakersfield, where a cold fog typically shrouds the Kern County oil city. Southern California weather will be more inhospitable than usual, he said, if the heavy rains from El Niño materialize.

Robinson was listening to KNBR, the San Francisco sports station, on a small portable radio.

“I’m hoping the 49ers could be doing something today,” he said, expressing the diehard football fan’s holiday wish.

The Niners lost, but Sonoma County’s homeless are due for a break from Mother Nature.

Clouds arriving with an incoming front will moderate temperatures and may bring light rain Monday morning, National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Benjamin said. The rest of the week will be clear with overnight temperatures in the low to mid-30s - rather than the 20s - with highs in the mid-50s.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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