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Two homeless encampments cleared near downtown Santa Rosa

Authorities on Tuesday cleared two homeless encampments near downtown Santa Rosa where dozens of people had been living in tents, cars and RVs.

As many as 30 people had been staying at a camp near a vacant senior center on Rutledge Avenue in the South Park neighborhood, according to Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf.

Another 10 or so were camping at a small park at College Avenue and Fourth Street in front of Chelino’s Mexican restaurant, Wolf said.

By Tuesday morning, all homeless residents at the Rutledge Avenue site had already left the area, after police served a notice to vacate about a week ago. Public works crews came in to clear debris and put up fencing around the senior center parking lot.

Meanwhile at Fourth Street, Catholic Charities’ homeless outreach team met with campers and offered beds at Sam Jones Hall, the city’s primary homeless shelter. A handful accepted, while the rest packed up their things to look for a new place to stay.

Kurt Woodruff, 57, decided not to move into Sam Jones. He said he doesn’t feel safe at the shelter and is concerned about catching the coronavirus since the highly contagious delta variant has been detected in Sonoma County. Woodruff has chosen not to get vaccinated.

“I really don’t want to get shoved into a place with a hundred people in a crowded space,” he said.

Under a 2019 federal court order, city officials are required to offer shelter and property storage before disbanding encampments. Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities, Santa Rosa’s main homeless service provider, said the nonprofit helped three people at the camps move into Sam Jones and two find permanent housing.

She said Catholic Charities also enrolled 10 people into its outreach services.

“Our entire purpose and focus is to work with individuals to find a better form of housing,” Holmes said. “...Injunction or not, that’s our whole work.”

Some unsheltered residents who had been living in their vehicles near the senior center in South Park — which is slated for redevelopment into 62 units of low-income housing — opted to moved a few blocks down the residential neighborhood to Milton Street. On Tuesday, police alerted them the street was set to be cleared next week.

Neighbors in the area recently met with city and county officials to voice complaints about trash buildup, criminal activity and feeling threatened by some in the camp.

Annette Arnold, a member of the South Park Community Building Initiative, a neighborhood group, said residents were relieved to see the encampment gone following the meeting, which included local Councilman Eddie Alvarez.

“People really walked away from it feeling like we had been listened to,” Arnold said.

Tuesday’s cleanups follow two other evictions of small camps in Santa Rosa over roughly the past month, Wolf said. One was at Goodman Avenue near Sebastopol Road. The other was at Roberts Avenue near Sebestopol Road.

In an effort to give refuge to those living in vehicles, Santa Rosa is weighing a plan to open an overnight parking lot for up to 50 vehicles at the city’s Utility Field Office near the Finley Community Center.

Many more in Santa Rosa could benefit from such a program. City officials recently estimated that people are living in about 330 cars and RVs throughout the city. In total, about 1,500 unhoused residents are in Santa Rosa, making up over half of the county’s homeless population, according to last year’s homeless census count.

Victoria Yanez, a Santa Rosa attorney and advocate with Homeless Action, said she wants the city to create many more shelter options for unhoused people. She pointed to the city’s temporary 68-tent outdoor camp at the Finley Community Center that closed in November as an example to follow.

“We need to treat this like a crisis,” Yanez said. “We need an emergency way to get people sheltered. Even if it’s just their tents.”

Tory Allen, 32, had been living at the Fourth Street camp for about a month before packing up his possessions Tuesday and strapping them to a dolly. He wasn’t sure where he was heading next.

“Not a clue. Not an idea whatsoever,” he said.

When Allen was 12 years old, he hitchhiked from Eugene, Oregon, to Santa Rosa to escape an abusive family situation. He had been living with a girlfriend in the area for about eight years before ending up in the street.

As an excavator scooped up mattresses, acoustic guitars, bike frames and other items left behind at the camp, Allen struggled to navigate his way across busy Fourth Street. His dolly, weighed down with belongings, scraped loudly against the pavement.

“Not everybody parties out here,” he said. “Some people didn’t really choose it. It just kind of happens that way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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