Sonoma County to clear Joe Rodota Trail homeless encampment

Sonoma County has closed a portion of the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa to clear a homeless encampment.|

Sonoma County officials on Tuesday are expected to begin clearing a homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail where dozens of people and their pets have been living for weeks.

The county closed the trail Friday afternoon between Hampton Way and Dutton Avenue, where approximately 30 people were camped. Officials are aiming to reopen the trail by the end of the week, according to a Sonoma County news release.

Residents and advocates say they believe as many as 50 people live in the encampment near Roseland Avenue, where nearly 30 tents and makeshift shelters were visible Monday.

One woman appeared to be living out of a Jeep Wrangler, and dried clothing on a string tied between the vehicle and a shopping cart.

The site isn’t far from where the county tackled another encampment in July, which also led to the closure of the popular pedestrian and bike trail.

Chain link fences were installed during that effort and still line the trail. At the newest campsite, fences separate the trail from private property, including industrial buildings to the east and homes to the west.

The trail serves as recreational path and as a connector for commuting cyclists and pedestrians. The county closed the path as a safety measure, said Gilbert Martinez, a county communications specialist. He added the trail became “more narrow” to pedestrians and cyclists as the encampment grew.

The encampment, which has been home to residents for various amounts of time, started in early January, Martinez said.

Nikki Ell said she’s lived in the encampment for about two months with her boyfriend and their two bull mastiffs. Like others there, she said they’re willing to work with outreach workers if they could be more specific on where everyone’s being sent.

“They offered us a wait list (for shelter placement). That doesn’t help us now,” said Ell, 27.

Martinez said there is no wait list and about 15 to 18 people have accepted services and moved to alternative shelters.

“People have been accepting offers pretty much since last week,” Martinez said.

The county is legally required to offer homeless individuals shelter placement before clearing the encampment.

On Jan. 20, individuals camping on the trail were given notices informing them they would have to leave by Tuesday, said Martinez.

Martinez said he legally could not specify where people were being placed but said the placements were at housing options “already in operation,” and did not include hotel vouchers.

When the trail was cleared in July, the county offered placements at trailers run by a company called DEMA, a private contractor, near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Other options included a six-month stay at the Sam Jones congregate living shelter, which is unpopular with many unhoused residents; or vouchers for a 30-day stay at local hotels.

During the July episode, residents requested a temporary restraining order against the county to delay their removal.

They argued the county had failed to provide sufficient shelter options as federal law requires. A judge with the U.S. District Court for Northern California granted a temporary restraining order to allow more time for placements, but lifted the order a few days later, allowing the county to clear the trail.

As county workers interviewed residents Monday, not far away stood Alicia Roman, a homeless advocate and attorney with California Legal Rural Assistance.

She planned to interview residents to ensure they were properly advised and understood their rights. Roman believes the majority are interested in better housing conditions on the heels of the atmospheric rivers that pounded Sonoma County since late December.

“People want placement, especially because it’s stormy weather time,” Roman said.

Patrick Donohue escaped recent rainstorms by staying under a roof overhang at a U.S. Post Office building and moved to the camp late last week.

Donohue said he willingly became homeless in 2009 after serving a prison sentence in Idaho for robbery, but age has caught up to the 64-year-old, and full-time shelter has become a necessity.

He uses a wheelchair because he was born with spina bifida and he needs a shelter that will provide him access. Donohue said he’s willing to work with the county, but he couldn’t be accommodated at the Sonoma County fairgrounds, where he was previously offered shelter.

“I’m not a hard guy to get long with. I just like a little quality of life,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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