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Sonoma County officials clear Joe Rodota Trail of large homeless encampment

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Fore more stories on Sonoma County's homeless crisis, go here.

Lisa Swaney, 40, has been homeless for 28 years. And in that time, she’s been a rock for countless others, making it hard for her not to feel the dread Friday morning along the Joe Rodota Trail.

As authorities finally evicted the largest homeless camp in Sonoma County history, Swaney wasn’t sure where to go.

“Just as soon as we started feeling comfortable or secure and might be ready to finally take that next step (to recovery), they come and do this,” Swaney said, scanning the inside of a tent she had set up along the trail in September. “We’re back to, ‘Where are we going to stay tonight? Are the cops going to come?’ It’s back to turmoil.”

Dozens of campers hurriedly gathered their belongings as authorities went tent to tent along the 2-mile village. The clearing operation represented the culmination of a monthslong tussle between county officials and homeless advocates over plans to relocate trail campers to shelters. In late December, Sonoma County supervisors decided to spend nearly $12 million on a variety of temporary and permanent shelters and services. Also, they promised the community they would clear the Rodota encampment by the end of January.

The county spent about $2 million of that money on a temporary shelter at Los Guilicos juvenile justice campus in east Santa Rosa where 60 tiny homes were erected in a parking lot across from the Oakmont retirement community. On Friday, 12 more people were taken from the trail to Los Guilicos, filling the last remaining spots at the camp expected to remain open until at least April 30.

County officials had called the trail’s burgeoning encampment a humanitarian crisis in light of escalating public health and safety concerns, including a rat infestation along the trail. At its peak, there were as many as 250 homeless people living along the west Santa Rosa trail.

“This is a commitment that we made and I think that it’s important that we kept to that commitment,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose west county district includes the Rodota trail, of clearing it. “It’s been a hard day ... and I think that, honestly, clearing one large encampment is just a reminder that this is only 7% of the homeless population in the county and that we just have so much work still to do to meaningfully address homelessness.”

Friday’s eviction went relatively smoothly and no one was arrested or cited, county spokeswoman Melissa Valle said. Officials stressed in the weeks leading up to the sweep arresting homeless people was a “last resort” they hoped they wouldn’t have to do.

Although no one was arrested, park rangers did have issues with a few campers. One man, Stephen Floyd, was nearly detained after refusing to clean up his campsite or accept any services arranged by the county.

He said he wanted to be arrested, that jail would be a vacation from his experience on the trail. Park rangers convinced him to take the afternoon to clean up his site.

“I don’t want to be here,” Floyd said. “This path has hurt me honestly. But it has made me and my friends closer.”

The trail section between Roberts Avenue and South Wright Road that had been occupied by homeless residents will be closed to the public for the next few weeks as officials clean it.

Fore more stories on Sonoma County's homeless crisis, go here.

The sweep began around 10:30 a.m. on the western end of the encampment. Two large vans driven by parks staffers led a small caravan of law enforcement agencies conducting the sensitive operation.

Santa Rosa police officers provided security for park rangers, Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said. Park rangers marked the paved path in front of each campsite with one of three symbols. An X signaled a camper had yet to move away.

County staffers conducted needs assessments for each camper on the trail. Depending on individual needs, staffers transported people to several shelters around the county, including Redwood Gospel Mission, Sam Jones Hall and Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma.

About 500 plastic crates were handed out two at a time for campers to pack their belongings for 90 days of storage on the county’s dime.

Those still without a designated shelter space tugged overflowing shopping carts piled several feet high with their possessions, walked east and crowded the intersection at Stony Point Road. Many scattered onto nearby sidewalks, traversing the busy Highway 12 overpass as they searched for somewhere to go.

Chuck Phillips, who has been homeless for 40 years, sat with his arms crossed at a tidy spot near Brittain Lane. Like dozens of others who didn’t quality for housing since eviction notices were posted on the trail almost three weeks ago, his needs were more specific. That meant staying at a shelter was not an option.

“If they can’t find me a place, I’m going to pop up a tent somewhere else,” Phillips said.

After about four hours of disbanding the homeless population along the Rodota, an eerie calm settled over the area of the once-bustling encampment. All that remained were abandoned tents, bicycle parts and heaps of trash accumulated over six months.

Earlier this week, homeless advocates attempted to block the sweep by claiming in a letter to U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria that the county hadn’t offered adequate shelter to everyone living on the trial before they starting to clear it. Chhabria, however, denied the request Wednesday, clarifying that county officials intend to offer a housing alternative to each homeless camper before removing that individual from the trail, which would comply with a 2019 court order.

Marcos Ramirez of the Squeaky Wheel Coalition disputed that and questioned why Sonoma County Fairgrounds was off the table for an emergency shelter when no other new temporary shelter space besides Los Guilicos has been publicly identified.

“That’s where this county has previously and effectively supported the community in emergencies,” Ramirez said. “So why have we not opened the fairgrounds? I can only imagine it’s for political reasons and not for humanitarian reasons.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig. You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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