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Standstill over growing Sonoma County homeless camp fuels calls for sanctioned site

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Where officials stand on sanctioned homeless camps

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

David Rabbitt: The chairman of the board said he’s open to a sanctioned encampment, but he said he wouldn’t support that as a permanent solution. “No matter where you put it, you’re going to find a neighbor or three that’s going to be outraged.”

Lynda Hopkins: She supports encampments as a bridge between camping at places like the Joe Rodota Trail and permanent housing. “Housing-first doesn’t work when we don’t have enough housing,” Hopkins said.

Shirlee Zane: She supports the encampments, but she doesn’t like the word “sanctioned,” and she wants them to be temporary. “You have to have an exit plan,” she said.

James Gore: He is willing to consider it. “I am willing to try anything that could achieve ‘better’ instead of the continued path of perfect inaction,” Gore said via text message.

Susan Gorin: She favors establishing a site to accommodate RVs or tiny homes. “Where are we going to put the little tiny homes or the conestoga wagons?” she said at a recent meeting.

Santa Rosa City Council

Tom Schwedhelm: Santa Rosa’s mayor said he would support a sturdy temporary structure with on-site services that guided people into permanent housing. “You don’t just pop a tent and say, ‘Come on in.’ It needs to be managed. It needs to be housing-focused.”

Victoria Fleming: The vice mayor, a career social worker, said she rejected the notion that people who are homeless are not taxpayers and noted that access to sanitation and mental care were important. “There is nothing, in my mind, that is not on the table.”

Chris Rogers: He would consider them if there were properly managed and treated as a midway point. “I would hope that it would be in partnership with the Board of Supervisors to make sure that it is consistent and that it is housing-focused.”

John Sawyer: He has questions about how any camp would be funded and isn’t optimistic about the prospects for a shared solution between cities and the county. “I am willing to have that conversation. But I would enter that conversation with a high level of concern about the success of that conversation.”

Jack Tibbetts: He said “encampments have a strong role to play” and placed blame for the rising crisis squarely on government shoulders.

Ernesto Olivares: “I don’t have enough information for an opinion and will wait to see how this plays out with the (Home Sonoma) Leadership Council.”

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.”

Where officials stand on sanctioned homeless camps

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

David Rabbitt: The chairman of the board said he’s open to a sanctioned encampment, but he said he wouldn’t support that as a permanent solution. “No matter where you put it, you’re going to find a neighbor or three that’s going to be outraged.”

Lynda Hopkins: She supports encampments as a bridge between camping at places like the Joe Rodota Trail and permanent housing. “Housing-first doesn’t work when we don’t have enough housing,” Hopkins said.

Shirlee Zane: She supports the encampments, but she doesn’t like the word “sanctioned,” and she wants them to be temporary. “You have to have an exit plan,” she said.

James Gore: He is willing to consider it. “I am willing to try anything that could achieve ‘better’ instead of the continued path of perfect inaction,” Gore said via text message.

Susan Gorin: She favors establishing a site to accommodate RVs or tiny homes. “Where are we going to put the little tiny homes or the conestoga wagons?” she said at a recent meeting.

Santa Rosa City Council

Tom Schwedhelm: Santa Rosa’s mayor said he would support a sturdy temporary structure with on-site services that guided people into permanent housing. “You don’t just pop a tent and say, ‘Come on in.’ It needs to be managed. It needs to be housing-focused.”

Victoria Fleming: The vice mayor, a career social worker, said she rejected the notion that people who are homeless are not taxpayers and noted that access to sanitation and mental care were important. “There is nothing, in my mind, that is not on the table.”

Chris Rogers: He would consider them if there were properly managed and treated as a midway point. “I would hope that it would be in partnership with the Board of Supervisors to make sure that it is consistent and that it is housing-focused.”

John Sawyer: He has questions about how any camp would be funded and isn’t optimistic about the prospects for a shared solution between cities and the county. “I am willing to have that conversation. But I would enter that conversation with a high level of concern about the success of that conversation.”

Jack Tibbetts: He said “encampments have a strong role to play” and placed blame for the rising crisis squarely on government shoulders.

Ernesto Olivares: “I don’t have enough information for an opinion and will wait to see how this plays out with the (Home Sonoma) Leadership Council.”

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.

“We have compassion and feel for them,” Alden said, nodding to her landlord and a neighbor while standing near the trail last week.

At the same time, she has taken to making occasional nighttime patrols outside her house, toting a Taser and bear spray. She hasn’t had to use them yet.

“Old ladies armed to the teeth,” she said, laughing about her unexpected watchdog role. “It’s crazy.”

Impact on neighbors

As the camp became a fixture on the trail this year, nearby residents including those in the Casa Del Sol neighborhood have reported a spike in crime and nuisances.

The gated complex separated from the encampment by a large wall has experienced a rise in vehicle break-ins, said Jim Kline, president of Casa Del Sol’s homeowners association. In one instance a woman entered a resident’s garage and curled up there with a little dog before being told to leave. A man attempted to bathe in the complex’s spa area, Kline said.

Residents keep finding hypodermic needles apparently thrown over the wall, prompting one resident to furnish a medical waste container. Neighbors are hoping the recent concession by county officials allowing portable restrooms to be set up near the campers will put an end to uncapped bottles of urine being lobbed into the complex, Kline said.

Since July, Santa Rosa police have responded to at least 124  homeless-related incidents along the Joe Rodota Trail. Of the 240 total calls during that time, at least 38 resulted in criminal charges, most commonly arrests on outstanding warrants. Those calls spiked in October at 44, dropping to 19 in November, when the number of charges dropped to three, the lowest since August, when there were five, according to police records. The department did not have data on how many of the 38  criminal cases involved people who are homeless.

Casa Del Sol residents, about a dozen of whom moved in after the 2017 fires, also worry about campfires, Kline said, particularly when they can smell smoke from the trail on windy nights. About 40 homes are vulnerable if a warming fire managed to climb a redwood or cedar near the wall, he said.

But a tree-trimmer hired to cut back low-hanging branches, both to avoid having boughs catch fire and to stop people from clambering over the wall, was greeted with a rock thrown at him from the trail, Kline said.

“It’s like the Wild West out there at night,” he said.

Although her home is far from the wall, Casa Del Sol resident Francie Simonson said an influx of rodents was one big impact from the unsanctioned encampment. She and her neighbors “are not heartless,” she said, but they want a solution.

“There’s a myriad of reasons why people are homeless,” Simonson said. “But I don’t like having rats on my patio when I’m trying to have my morning coffee.”

Since late October, those who like to ride bicycles or walk on the trail have been urged to avoid it by Regional Parks officials, who installed signs at both ends of the affected segment. Rangers decreased their patrols of the area to curb a pattern of negative run-ins with trail residents.

But that is a misguided approach, says Citizens for Action Now, a coalition that counts about 800 people as members of its Facebook group. It is calling for a stronger combination of law enforcement and concentrated services to prevent people from camping on places like the Joe Rodota Trail.

“We want to help people,” said Craig Murphy, a co-founder of the group. “But we’re not willing to give up the public land and parks.”

On the other side is the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a newly formed advocacy group for the homeless. Their members recently installed signs of their own along the trail that read: “Welcome to Camp Joe Rodota.”

How we got here

Local governments say their ability to break up the camp, or any unsanctioned sleeping site for homeless people, is constrained until at least next summer by a federal judge’s temporary order.

That injunction, in place until June, arose from a lawsuit filed on behalf of people who lived in 2018 behind the Dollar Tree and on the Joe Rodota Trail north of Sebastopol Road, a short walk east from the current camp.

The judge allowed that camp to be cleared but required authorities to offer adequate shelter and storage for personal belongings before breaking up future encampments.

Law enforcement officials insist the court order hasn’t diminished their determination to maintain public safety on the trail and in other places where homeless people congregate.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is “working very closely” with county officials on a plan to address the Joe Rodota Trail encampment and will continue to respond to calls for criminal activity there, said chief Ray Navarro.

“There’s a lot of concern, and it looks like there’s not a lot being done, but we are having a lot of high-level conversations and discussions about how to address this issue,” Navarro said, adding that his officers “work within the injunction.”

The injunction followed a September 2018 ruling in federal court stemming from a challenge to anti-camping rules in Boise, Idaho. That city has now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case on appeal, a closely watched decision the nation’s high court is expected to make in the coming weeks, according to an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Some residents of the camp are well aware of the legal fight and its implications for their current status.

During a brief reprieve from the rain Wednesday, Nicholle Vannucci, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that sparked the local injunction, rattled off a list of requirements resulting from the judge’s order before moving on to a list of what she’d like from government officials: a piece of dirt for her tent, a sense of safety, a reliable source of water to drink and bathe, trash service and bathrooms.

“I mean, these are basic necessities of being alive,” she said.

With deep puddles on either side of the trail, many campers have taken to bracing their shelters for the winter. Some have placed their tents atop wooden pallets to get them off the sodden ground. Blankets and sleeping bags soaked by this week’s rain hung over a fence that doubles as a clothesline visible to motorists whizzing by on Highway 12. Some honk or shout at the camp’s residents as they pass.

Vannucci and others in the camp are ready for a solution. Being homeless means feeling judged, she said, because she carries all of her stuff in a backpack, because her hands are dirty, because she visibly deals with auditory hallucinations.

She said the lack of trash cans as well as signs advising people to avoid the trail contribute to conditions that make her feel subhuman.

“You get treated like a dog every day and one day you growl, and they go, ‘Oh my God, look at the animal!’ ” Vannucci said. “We become the problem they want us to be.”

Clash over solutions

Since 2015, Sonoma County has patterned its efforts to address homelessness after a national model known as “housing first,” which seeks foremost to place people more quickly into stable housing, while also offering services to deal with the physical, mental health, substance abuse and employment issues that many who are homeless experience.

But that approach, widely adopted across the state, is both costly — at $300,000 to $500,000 per housing unit, according to the county — and slow to meet the needs of hundreds of chronically homeless people.

The result is a clash between well-intentioned policy that prioritizes permanent housing and the reality that many in Sonoma County’s homeless population won’t be served by that approach for years, if ever.

The county’s chief homelessness agency, the Community Development Commission, has been bruised in past standoffs over homeless gatherings, including the Dollar Tree encampment that sparked the ongoing court fight.

CDC officials remain sharply skeptical of sanctioned camps, pointing to research and data that show such sites do not provide effective paths to permanent housing.

Geoffrey Ross, the newly appointed executive director of the Community Development Commission, admits there’s not enough permanent housing for folks to transition into after their time is up in temporary beds. But he said there’s enough for the current flow. And he won’t jump on board with sanctioned encampments despite the outcry from residents and the apparent pivot in support from local elected leaders.

“What does a sanctioned encampment accomplish?” Ross said. “That’s action for action’s sake. It doesn’t address the true underlying problem.”

But Wagner, the homeless advocate, panned the housing-first approach.

“It’s flat-out cruel and unusual punishment,” he said, adding that county leaders’ insistence on big, expensive, time-consuming approaches is a waste of taxpayer money and an inhumane delay in help that’s needed now.

“If I had $60,000, do you know what I could do for 100 people?” Wagner said. “It would be an absolute miracle. Housing-first means we just f--- all of those people — very carefully, too.”

Latest plan still under wraps

The plan the development commission is set to put forth in the coming weeks will be based partly on another model for serving and sheltering large groups of people with no permanent address.

The inspiration is Haven for Hope, a San Antonio, Texas program which features an indoor-outdoor, secure, one-stop shelter with hot meals, showers, laundry and outreach services. The initiative required $101 million to launch, mostly from private sources, according to the organization’s website.

The Haven for Hope model would be much smaller in Sonoma County, but it isn’t likely to satisfy calls for more immediate action. Development commission spokeswoman Janelle Wetzstein said officials are working on a more immediate solution for the Joe Rodota Trail encampment that could be rolled out in a matter of months. The county doesn’t plan to publicly discuss that plan until at least the Dec. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The larger initiative would need land to gain traction in Sonoma County — perhaps some of the same properties favored by advocates and local officials for sanctioned encampments.

A handful of sites have been discussed publicly, including the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, a site near the Juvenile Hall on at the county’s Los Guilicos campus in Sonoma Valley, or land near the Santa Rosa Creek Trail west of Stony Point Road.

Another site that’s been suggested is the former KBBF-FM radio station property — near the defunct naval airfield in southwest Santa Rosa and Samuel L. Jones Hall, the largest shelter in the county, with more than 200 beds.

Wetzstein didn’t rule out the KBBF site from having a role in the county’s long-term solution.

But forging a Haven for Hope-style solution in Sonoma County would take a coalescence of time, money and political will that has yet to materialize.

“I’m sensing a greater desire on behalf of pretty much everybody,” said Wagner, who has become involved in the issue through the nonprofit group Sonoma Applied Village Services. “This is like an aircraft carrier that takes three quarters of a mile to make a turn. It’s hard to change things — change an institution.”

Support for sanctioned camps

In interviews and recent public comments, most Sonoma County and Santa Rosa elected officials have expressed their willingness to explore a middle ground between the encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail and the official goal of permanent housing with services for all in need.

Most are quick to clarify that they’re supportive of the camps only as temporary, stop-gap measures.

“I don’t like the word, ‘sanctioned,’ ” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We need to find temporary, safe and sanitary places. We have to have an exit plan.”

Zane’s rival in the District 3 supervisor race, former Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, issued his own call Thursday for the construction of multiple sanctioned encampments, starting with a small camp on public property through a city-county partnership.

“Get nonprofits involved. Community groups. Faith-based organizations. This should be a community effort to solve a community problem,” Coursey wrote in an email message for his campaign.

His successor, Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, a staunch supporter of the “housing-first” model, said he doesn’t want people to settle for living in a camp or a homeless shelter.

However, Schwedhelm said he would consider adding a semi-permanent shelter like those erected in San Diego to serve hundreds of people under one roof. Such a project could essentially replace more than 100 unregulated tented dwellings with one large, industrial-strength tent, with services on-site to guide people into permanent homes.

“I’m much more comfortable with that than a sanctioned encampment,” he said. “You don’t just pop a tent and say ‘Come on in.’ It needs to be managed. It needs to be housing-focused.”

Others on the council, including Jack Tibbetts, have voiced stronger support for sanctioned camps, saying the time has come for the city to embrace them as a necessary alternative to unregulated sites such as the Joe Rodota Trail.

“These encampments have a strong role to play,” said Tibbetts, who in his job at the head of the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul Society is spearheading the transformation of the Gold Coin Motel on Mendocino Avenue into permanent supportive housing.

As for where the camps would go, “We’ve got to sit down with a map and figure that out,” he said.

Small steps, growing criticism

Forging a plan that gets enough support to advance will not be easy.

“No matter where you put it, you’re going to find a neighbor or three that’s going to be outraged,” said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

The Citizens for Action Now group would approve of a sanctioned encampment only with certain conditions in place, said Murphy, a co-founder. The group’s preferred strategy would effectively give homeless people a choice between “participating in their own futures” by going to sanctioned camps with on-site services, or face arrest and jail time by camping illegally, he said.

“It seems like things are falling apart, so let’s be empathetic by providing services that people need to get on their feet,” Murphy said, adding that consequences for “backsliding” would be important to ensure such a strategy would work.

Still, when county and city officials and staff met Wednesday to discuss the Joe Rodota Trail encampment, the topic of a sanctioned site wasn’t even raised, according to Hopkins.

Instead, they discussed forming teams — complete with team captains — and splitting up to develop relationships with the people camping there to bring them in to shelters.

Hopkins talked about standardized forms and coordination and outreach before acknowledging her granular focus on process. “This all sounds fairly mundane and operational,” she said. “But it will make a difference in getting out there and helping people.”

Santa Rosa in January is set to consider revamping its existing, little-used safe parking program, which opens up legal overnight sites for homeless people with vehicles. Councilman Chris Rogers has suggested including City Hall’s lot as part of an expanded program.

But Wagner has grown frustrated with what he sees as local government’s piecemeal approach to solutions and hesitance to take bold action.

“That’s a huge hurdle for government. They don’t want to let go of first base until their foot is on second,” he said. “It’s understandable. They’ve got fiduciary duties. It’s just that if we don’t take an innovative and aggressive approach, we’re violating basic constitutional rights.”

Hopkins said she agreed with the criticism that government is slow to act.

“The great thing about community support and activism is that it’s an impetus for change,” she said.

Coordination and crossfire

Hopkins characterized the recent meeting with city and county officials — the second since early October — as an “inspiring” step for the two government agencies after initial discussions focused who was responsible for dealing with the encampment.

But verbal crossfire between county and city officials regarding jurisdiction hasn’t entirely quieted.

The Joe Rodota Trail runs on county-owned land overseen by Regional Parks, but the affected segment is within Santa Rosa city limits. County park rangers have scaled back patrols in the area and the city’s police officers are limited in their enforcement due to the court order.

But that injunction does not apply to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s a place for them to be involved,” Santa Rosa City Councilman John Sawyer said of Sheriff Mark Essick’s deputies, “and they are choosing to stand back, and I think it’s unfair. I think they should be involved.”

Essick, told of Sawyer’s comments in an interview, was incensed, calling the councilman “ill-informed” and pointing to the Sheriff’s Office’s involvement in working groups and his multiple meetings with county supervisors on the topic of homelessness.

“The city of Santa Rosa made a choice, eyes wide open, to take on responsibility for that area,” Essick said, referring to the council’s decision to annex much of Roseland in 2017. “For him to ask the question, ‘What am I doing in their city?’ I don’t set policy in the city of Santa Rosa.”

Most of the current encampment sits on land that was part of the city before 2017, but Essick said the annexation entailed a broader handoff of responsibility to the Santa Rosa Police Department from the Sheriff’s Office, which previously responded to calls for service related to homeless populations in the area.

Tibbetts blamed insufficient resources for the tepid response by local government officials — the city is spending about $4.5 million in general revenue on homelessness, and the Community Development Commission has about $5 million in local money going to homeless services. The state last year gave regional homeless leaders about $12 million in emergency spending, but that was only a one-time gift.

Without a massive influx of money to support a collaborative government effort addressing mental health and housing, significant change is unlikely, Tibbetts said.

“It’s kind of an apocalypse of government ineptitude,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writers Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com and Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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