Standstill over growing Sonoma County homeless camp fuels calls for sanctioned site
For 10 years, Patty Alden has lived in a small home near the Joe Rodota Trail, a Sonoma County park path on an old railroad line stretching more than 8 ?miles from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol.
In recent months, more than 150 homeless people have set up camp along the trail in Santa Rosa between Stony Point and Wright roads not far from the 64-year-old Alden's house.
Her 40-year-old son is one of the camp's residents.
He became homeless about three years ago, and extended time living outdoors and past periods of substance abuse have worsened his preexisting mental health problems, Alden said, leading him to “short-circuit” when he tries to live indoors. She's able to meet him about once a week, usually on a Wednesday, when she offers him some money, encouragement and another chance to visit her, if only for a meal and a shower.
“I just let him know he's still loved,” Alden said, pausing. “All of those people - that was somebody's kid.”
The makeshift village where Alden's son lives has grown in recent weeks to include more than 100 tents and shelters serving a population of as many as 200 people. It has become a burgeoning humanitarian crisis and public flashpoint in the rancorous debate over what needs to be done to more immediately curb homelessness.
It is now the largest homeless camp Santa Rosa has known, according to officials, homeless advocates and those living in the soggy and often frigid conditions on the trail. Parks officials have urged trail users to avoid the area, and some neighbors regard it anxiously as a source of fights, fires, shouting matches and obnoxious stench.
Only last week did park officials allow placement of eight portable restrooms along the trail, a result of widespread concern over exposure to untreated human waste.
Outside of that move spurred by homeless advocates, government leaders in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have done little to publicly address the unregulated camp. They have sparred at times over who ultimately is responsible for dealing with the space and its occupants.
But facing growing frustration of late from residents and homeless advocates calling for action, once-reticent officials now say they are willing to explore and possibly establish sanctioned encampments as a temporary measure while they seek to funnel more people into permanent housing.
The pivot represents an apparent sea change in the stance of elected leaders, acknowledged Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the encampment. In mid-October, she called it an “epicenter for lawlessness.”
“The situation is dire,” Hopkins said. “Frustration is not a good emotion for us to be feeling, but at the same time, frustration drives change.”
Still, as another winter sets in, neither the city of Santa Rosa nor Sonoma County has put forward a plan that would clear the trail camp and provide shelter to its residents.
About 40 beds in the countywide shelter system are open on any given night, to serve about 675 people known to regularly sleep outside. Overall, about 3,000 people are homeless in the county, representing one of the largest homeless populations among suburban communities in the nation, according to federal housing officials.
“The rains beginning every year is the most significant time for homeless people,” said homeless advocate Scott Wagner, a retired Navy officer and investment banker who was at the camp Wednesday. “New homeless people are lost and they're going to screw up badly. Old homeless people are gonna get sick. They're all shoved into these weird places like this.”
The county may be the first to act. The Board of Supervisors plans to hold a closed-door discussion Tuesday with the county's homelessness czar that will likely touch on initial plans for a new homeless services hub that could also offer some outdoor shelter space. The county has yet to say whether it has a selected a site among several said to be under consideration.
Any step forward would likely set in motion another factious and prolonged discussion over the feasibility and impacts of a sanctioned camp, meaning no alternative site is likely to be established in the near term.
The Santa Rosa City Council, meanwhile, won't hear a presentation to expand the city's temporary shelter measures until late January.
Public pressure is mounting, with new interest groups emerging to represent homeless residents and those interested in reclaiming the park path for trail users.
Alden has a unique stake in the dilemma, with both her son's well-being and the welfare of her neighborhood on the line. She receives reports about her son's whereabouts from camp residents as they pass through her neighborhood.