PD Editorial: A public trail is no place for a tent city

There are almost 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County, according to the most recent survey, and only about 800 emergency shelter beds and 275 more in transitional housing.

It doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that leaves a lot of people without anywhere to go. They're couch surfing or sleeping in cars, in doorways outside businesses, on sidewalks and in encampments, some hidden, others impossible to overlook.

One of the largest is alongside the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa, where at least 110 people are camping in about 100 tents. It isn't safe, it isn't sanitary - and, intentionally or not, the encampment has effectively closed the trail to pedestrians and bicyclists. In fact, the county plans to post signs advising people to find a different route.

There aren't any easy answers, but this much is certain: The trail is a public right of way, and city and county officials must find a way to quickly restore public access and to ensure the peace and safety of people who live nearby.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins drew sustained applause at a campaign forum Wednesday, when she said the city and county “pointing at each other and saying ‘Oh, it's the sheriff,' ‘Oh, it's SRPD,' ‘Oh, it's the rangers,' that's not productive, right?”

Mass arrests aren't a solution to a humanitarian problem, and they aren't an option anyway. A federal appeals court in Boise, Idaho ruled that local governments in nine Western state cannot stop people from sleeping on public property unless there is shelter space available.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County also must comply with a settlement mediated by a federal judge in San Francisco that requires written notice as well an offer of adequate shelter before clearing homeless people from public property.

But neither court order is a license for lawless behavior or public health hazards.

The Boise ruling says that cities can enforce reasonable restrictions on sleeping, lying and sitting outside at particular times and in certain locations - even if there isn't sufficient shelter space for everyone. The local injunction has exemptions for criminal activity and hazardous conditions.

Santa Rosa police officers are sent to the Joe Rodota trail on a daily basis - 163 times since July 1, Staff Writer Will Schmitt reports, with about 90 of those calls homeless-related. Half of the calls since July 1 originated near the encampment.

Even if pedestrians and cyclists are asked to stay away, authorities can insist that tents and people aren't blocking the trail and that garbage isn't piling up. Because the trail is county property, sheriff's deputies and park rangers should augment the city's efforts until the campers can be relocated.

The campers may be entitled to stay for now, given the terms of the court rulings, but no one is entitled to trash public property or create a health hazard.

At the campaign forum, held less than a mile from the tent city, Hopkins and her fellow candidates talked about the need for more affordable housing, transitional housing and shelters like the Palms Inn, a motel converted to house homeless veterans. Social service needs include treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

All true, but those are medium- and long-term answers, and past projects have gotten bogged down in process and budget constraints. The encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail is an immediate problem and, as Hopkins put it, a symbol of the failures of government and the safety net.

More camps will sprout as winter nears, each adding to the burden on law enforcement and the toll of human suffering.

We remain skeptical of sanctioned camps. But with the court orders in place, and a lack of available shelter beds, the best option for city and county officials may be identifying unused public land, isolated from parks and neighborhoods, where homeless people can stay - so long as they, too, comply with the court orders. The one thing public officials cannot do is wait for someone else to find a solution.

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