Sonoma County officials move toward clearing Joe Rodota Trail
Sonoma County authorities began easing homeless campers off the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa on Wednesday with verbal warnings that will transition to citations and, potentially, arrests by week’s end, officials said.
County representatives said they hope no arrests are necessary - that when the Friday deadline hits, more than two weeks after campers were notified of the county’s intent, those who have been living along the public trail will leave on their own, as they have with previous sweeps.
The county hopes to have all residents off the trail by then so they can begin cleaning the parkland of debris and filth that accumulated during the six-month encampment.
But there is enough clear resistance among those remaining at the camp that at its height was home to 250 people that a voluntary exodus is not guaranteed.
In that case, county park rangers will be prepared to make arrests, Sonoma County Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.
“The spirit of this is certainly that it’s our absolutely last resort, (but) we’ve made arrangements to be able to do so, and park rangers have the authority to do so,” he said.
Notices posted on trail
County officials announced about three weeks ago that they would clear the trail by the end of January during a flurry of emergency discussions about how to resolve the unsafe, unsanitary encampment that suddenly grew out of control starting last summer and now extends along about 2 miles of the paved trail.
Signs posted on the trail notified campers that they were in violation of several laws as of 8 a.m. Wednesday, leading some to believe enforcement action might be taken immediately.
Instead, park rangers walked the trail Wednesday afternoon to remind campers of the need to start moving. County officials handed out bags and boxes for campers to pack up their belongings, and buses arrived to shuttle residents wherever they wanted to go.
“We know that these are people’s lives on the trail, so we’re working to help them move in a way that is respectful of their lives and their homes,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque.
By Thursday, park rangers might issue citations ordering campers to appear in court. On Friday, they may physically arrest those who are not making an effort to leave, officials said.
But homeless advocates say the county has yet to comply with requirements established under evolving law that protects the right of the homeless to sleep in public places when adequate shelter is not available elsewhere, as well as contained in a court settlement negotiated last summer by the county, the city of Santa Rosa and three homeless individuals who filed suit against local government.
“The reality is that there is not enough capacity,” said Marcos Ramirez, a member of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition. “The county has done a pittance of what they should be doing to support folks.”
Tiny home village
County elected officials and staff have spent much of the past six weeks trying to work through solutions for trail residents, however, adopting a nearly $12 million suite of measures that includes construction of a temporary tiny home village in the parking lot of the Los Guilicos juvenile detention facility on Highway 12 in east Santa Rosa.
It has 60 units, 30 of them already claimed by Tuesday and about 14 more that county personnel hoped to fill Wednesday, Sonoma County Regional Parks spokeswoman Meda Freeman said. The camp will house residents through April 30.
One of those who moved in Monday, Sandra Austin, came back to the trail Wednesday to urge others to accept a spot if they were offered.
“I’m here to tell my friends who think it’s a concentration camp that it’s safe, and they should go there before the police come,” said Austin, 62, referring to those who have been critical of fencing around the perimeter and certain rules governing conduct at the Los Guilicos site.
Advocates protest move
But critics of the plan to sweep the trail already were protesting Wednesday, in addition to fighting their case in court.
One 64-year-old man, who gave his name only as Fred, said he was among the first people to sign up for a spot at Los Guilicos but was bypassed and now had no where to go. He said he wasn’t sure what to do and might try to stay put on the trail, given his understanding of what the court settlement requires.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” he said.
Another man, a resident of Sam Jones Hall who was helping to clean a friend’s encampment in preparation for moving out, said he knew for sure there were people who would try to stick it out.
“There’s definitely going to be some rebellion,” said the man, Sean Baldwin. “They just prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”