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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.”

Advocates for the homeless community picketed at the trail on Wednesday in anticipation of enforcement action even as they awaited a new decision from a federal judge as to whether the county’s enforcement plan complies with last summer’s settlement. A small number also tied themselves to a chain on the fenced entrance to the trail on Stony Point Road later in the day. While they knew it wouldn’t prevent police officers from entering the camp, they hoped it would send a strong message to the authorities, said 27-year-old Michael Titone, one of the protesters.

Advocacy groups argue the county has still not offered adequate shelter to everyone on the trail, which would violate an injunction order from 2019, and submitted a letter to U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria earlier this week that asked him to postpone the action on those grounds.

Chhabria ruled Wednesday that, while concerns about the sweep were understandable, they weren’t enough for him to block the county from clearing the trail.

“The injunction does not require the defendants to identify and offer housing to every encampment resident before initiating the process of clearing the encampment; indeed, compliance with any such requirement would almost certainly be impossible,” Chhabria said in his ruling.

Rather, Chhabria said, the county plans to offer a housing alternative to each camper before removing that camper from the trail, which would comply with the injunction.

After the trail is cleared, advocates may file another claim if they believe the county violated the injunction, Chhabria said in his ruling.

Making alternate plans

During a 9 a.m. press conference Wednesday, Ramirez of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition pointed to the limited number of beds at the Los Guilicos site compared to the massive efforts the county took during recent wildfires, as well as flooding that hit the county last winter.

The county’s response to the homeless population on the trail was not matched, he said.

“Do not use the language of ‘emergency’ when we are not using the same definition,” Ramirez said.

But county workers say a multidisciplinary team has spent weeks meeting people on the trail, trying to determine what kinds of shelter arrangements might meet their needs while arranging for the most vulnerable individuals to move to Los Guilicos.

The Redwood Gospel Mission opened up 30 additional beds on Wednesday to help with the shelter needs, county health department spokesman Rohish Lal said Wednesday.

County personnel also helped trail inhabitants get to other shelter settings and even, in two cases, reach the airport and a bus station on their way to destinations out of town, “so people are making alternative plans,” Freeman said.

Laura Winkelman, 52, has been living on the trail on and off for the last year. She started packing up her belongings Wednesday, hoping to move to a shelter. While she praised county officials for all the help they offered her, she still wasn’t sure where she would sleep Wednesday night, which terrified her.

“I never thought that this could happen to me,” she said of being homeless. “It’s an enormous problem ... You get kicked out wherever you go.”

Lisa Swaney, 40, said her day would also consist of packing her belongings ahead of the county’s enforcement action on the trail, though her destination would not be the temporary shelter on the opposite side of town.

“Something is not right about it,” Swaney said of the Los Guilicos location. “Why are they putting us out in the middle of nowhere? They’re just trying to shoo the problem elsewhere.”

She said she has been homeless for the better part of the past three decades, including time as a resident of Camp Michela, an encampment behind the Roseland Dollar Tree store on Sebastopol Road that swelled to almost 100 tents. The encampment was dismantled by local officials in mid-2018, forcing her to migrate from one area to another before settling in at the Joe Rodota Trail late last summer. Her next move is uncertain.

“And then what? I’m not sure,” Swaney said when asked what she’ll do after she’s done packing her belongings. “I’m pretty much taking it minute by minute.”

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writers Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com and Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203.

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