It’s taken a pandemic to do it, but Santa Rosa this month is slated to dramatically ramp up its response to the local homelessness crisis by opening its first-ever managed homeless encampment to protect at-risk homeless people from the coronavirus.
The move comes as COVID-19 remains a persistent local health threat - reaching 373 confirmed cases Saturday - and with unsanctioned homeless encampments resurgent across Santa Rosa, as scores of tents and makeshift shelters have taken over sidewalks on Highway 101 underpasses and downtown parking lots from Third Street to College Avenue.
Some of those same campers were cleared in late January from a sprawling homeless camp strung out along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa. But the new collection of camps, including the growing cluster lining the College Avenue underpass, may be here to stay - the result of court-imposed limits on homeless enforcement in the city and federal health guidelines that discourage clearing campsites to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19.
Local officials plan to ask those campers to relocate, and the new sanctioned site outside the Finley Community Center in northwest Santa Rosa will be able to accommodate up to 140 people, with intake starting Monday.
But any relocation can’t be mandated, at least not any time soon, and city officials acknowledge they’re working on the fly as the pandemic forces them to accelerate their response. As is, officials’ embrace of the Finley site reverses years if not decades of opposition inside City Hall to any kind of managed homeless camp.
“Ending homelessness is really easy: housing. But how to get there, that’s the challenging part,” Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said Thursday night at an online community meeting hosted by the city. “And there is no framework for any other community that’s had to deal with COVID-19. We’re creating this as we go.”
The Finley site is set to remain in operation until the county health officer lifts the now-indefinite shelter-at-home order. Already, it has stoked concerns among neighbors of the community center off West College Avenue.
“Being on the west side feels like a dumping ground sometimes,” said resident Judy Ervice during the city’s Thursday meeting. “Given that most of the homeless centers and resources are on the west side, we have more homeless problems ... and we just got over the Joe Rodota Trail, which was traumatic.”
Calls for service related to homelessness were below average in April, the first full month of shelter-in-place, according to Santa Rosa Police Department data. In fact, April’s call volume was the lowest it's been since November and December, when the Joe Rodota Trail encampment was fully entrenched and growing.
The city’s Police Department has sought to align its approach with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on homelessness amid the pandemic. Officers continue to enforce the law at homeless camps, said Capt. John Cregan, with the exception of anti-camping rules that would call for breaking up settlements, he said Thursday at the online meeting.
“If we see this disease spreading more quickly through the homeless population, that’s going to lead to surges at the local hospital,” Cregan said. “That affects not just that very vulnerable community in our city, but it affects everyone else in the city, so we have to work together to think collectively about what’s best for our city as a whole.”
Converging crises fuel response
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, the two largest local governments, have each declared formal emergencies over homelessness. In Santa Rosa’s case, the pronouncement came nearly four years ago. The 2017 fires and soaring housing costs are among a mix of factors that have deepened the crisis, driving local governments collectively to spend millions of dollars more on services and housing efforts. The county’s one-time outlay to disband the Joe Rodota Trail camp and relocate its residents topped $12 million. The city’s regular spending on homelessness has more than doubled since 2017, to $3.4 million.
Several months before the 2017 fires, Santa Rosa adopted an approach that favored disbanding homeless camps, and authorities did just that in several spots until running into a federal court challenge in 2018. A judge’s resulting order last year has limited enforcement ever since. The months-long disbandment of the 250-person camp on the Rodota trail was an aftereffect of that new legal reality, with final orders given only after replacement shelter existed for most campers.