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Santa Rosa homeless camp along Joe Rodota Trail the topic of raucous meeting

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One person was kicked out, another flipped off a speaker and an elected official cussed about bathrooms during a cacophonous hearing Tuesday on a homeless encampment that has strained government resources and challenged leaders’ ability to work together and craft solutions.

Equal parts activists and concerned homeowners and business owners filled the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting room for what was supposed to be a simple update on the swollen and growing homeless camp along the Joe Rodota Trail. By the end, county leaders were calling for bold, innovative solutions and urged staff to help stake a path forward before the year’s end.

More than 10% of the 8½-mile trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol has become home to more than 140 campsites and upward of 170 people, according to the latest estimates from the county’s Community Development Commission. Debate hinged on the rights of campers and the rights of nearby homeowners and business owners, something Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said was a false dichotomy.

“I would hope we can recognize our common humanity, our common frustration, and use that to galvanize us around solutions,” she said.

As the camp has grown, outreach has reached unprecedented levels, with five teams from the Community Development Commission, numerous resources from Catholic Charities, the Committee on the Shelterless, Reach for Home and more. These teams work to establish relationships and offer alternative places to stay, among other efforts.

Through it all, the specter of another sweep looms while the county balances restrictions to enforcement arising from a lawsuit, a preliminary injunction and a subsequent agreement with homeless advocates related to the county’s handling of a prior homeless camp.

Hopkins called that agreement, which establishes protocols before the county can initiate sweeps, a potential benefit for the county.

“You can look at it as a barrier or a protection — a codification of humanity,” Hopkins said. “I welcome barriers that say we need to have a solution.”

Supervisors advocated for numerous sanctioned encampments interspersed in unincorporated Sonoma County, a county-built homeless shelter and a place for people to use the toilet.

“I’m ready to see proposals,” Supervisor James Gore said. “If you want to bring toilets, bring toilets.”

Hopkins’ solution is more conversation, including with the newly formed Rodota Trail encampment advocacy group Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a two-wheeled alternative to the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the group that gathered more than 1,000 signatures calling for a sweep of the homeless camp.

One of the squeaky wheels was kicked out of the meeting while shouting about the group’s own petition. As the woman, Carolyn Epple, left, she kicked off a “Game of Thrones”-style “shame” chant.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt went back and forth with activists. But he had the microphone for the final word, after first offering that he believes the county should build its own shelter, and that it should be innovative and that he also doesn’t know where the county will get the money.

“Nobody should question the empathy or the compassion of this board,” Rabbitt said.

As recently as two weeks ago, a sweep was within sight of county leaders. Numbers at the camp had dwindled following evacuations related to the Kincade fire. Smoke blanketed Santa Rosa and the encampment a couple of times during the more than weeklong inferno.

In order to close down a camp, officials are required to ensure residents are given options for adequate alternatives. They’re notified before the sweep, and police are called to clear the area if necessary.

But an erroneous email sent Monday afternoon from Hopkins’ office confirming a sweep in the next couple of weeks helped inflame passions. Hopkins later clarified that the email was sent in error and was based on outdated information.

Local activist Kathleen Finigan said she wore black in protest of supervisors, saying they haven’t made the right decisions when it comes to the encampment.

“I’m furious,” she said in a phone interview before the meeting, referring to the prospect of a coming sweep of the encampment. “And I’m too old for this.”

Homeowners and business owners are weary, too, with many speaking of lost business, plunging property values and break-ins they blame on those at the encampment.

A 12-foot, concrete wall separates Shelly Radke’s condominium from the Joe Rodota Trail, but it doesn’t keep out the stench, she said during the public comment portion of the board meeting. She doesn’t think people should be allowed to camp on the trail. Citing her daughter’s heroin addiction, she said the only thing that will keep some people off the street is housing that allows drug use.

Miles Sarvis, who works with Mask Sonoma to provide respiratory masks to those without homes and other marginalized groups, said before the meeting that he would attend to give voice to those on the trail.

He said the goal is to humanize the people camping there.

Sarvis pointed to a video of the encampment, with its ominous music, published by bike advocate Jake Bayless Oct. 21 on YouTube. He said Squeaky Wheel began working on their own media efforts Tuesday.

“Today we were at the trail. We interviewed people with their consent, and allowed them to tell their stories on their own terms,” he said. “(The project) adequately reflects the lives of these people in an attempt to counter the dominant narrative.”

Charles Gibson has lived on the streets of Santa Rosa for about a year, coming from San Jose.

He’d advocate for himself at meetings like Tuesday’s, but he said he doesn’t want to leave his stuff behind.

“There’s some not-so-savory characters, shall we say,” Gibson said. “When you go to a meeting, things go missing.”

He said he didn’t think he would end up homeless, and he does miss things about having a solid home. He thinks most wouldn’t choose the lifestyle. The man people call “Cowboy” — he prefers Charles — knows what he wants now.

“Alls I’ve ever wanted was a place where it was all right to be, and a place where I matter,” he said. “We’re not doing anything out here that people with four walls don’t do.”

Timothy Marshall decided to come to the board meeting at the last minute, and drew applause after sharing his story of success.

He once lived on the Joe Rodota Trail, and recognizes his former neighbors to this day. But a few years ago, he got into Camp Michela, a homeless encampment in Roseland named after a homeless woman who was stabbed to death by a man who had taken LSD at a Halloween party in Santa Rosa.

Camp Michela had a fence and rules and security, a place to use the bathroom, charge cellphones and more.

“I was able to leave my stuff in a safe place so I could go to work for eight hours,” Marshall said. “I got the chance to get a house. This year, I’m going to celebrate my third Christmas in a home.”

Marshall said he hopes county leaders do something to help those camping feel safe so they can grow like he did.

Community Development Commission Director Geoffrey Ross didn’t attend the meeting because of a medical issue, but in a phone interview afterward called his office’s outreach efforts unprecedented.

But he said he also knows the county can and must do more. The ideas put forth by those at the meeting, including Supervisor Shirlee Zane’s and others’ calls for sanctioned camps with restrooms and showers, are all on the table.

But permanent solutions are the goal, Ross said.

“We cannot accept nonpermanent actions as solutions — they are not,” Ross said. “I heard so many people say housing is a right. It is a part of health. We have to honor that. We cannot confuse any other solution other than something that puts somebody in permanent, habitable, livable space.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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