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Refugees from Joe Rodota Trail homeless camp filtering out into Santa Rosa

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

In the cold and fog Saturday morning, Danae Hayworth gazed absently at traffic passing by on Sebastopol Road, her legs bouncing restlessly though she was exhausted from hauling all her stuff.

She sat on the edge of a wheeled dolly stacked neatly with bins and folded bedding, resting on the sidewalk near the southwest Santa Rosa post office. She had just run out of steam transferring her belongings from a self-storage business on Lombardi Court, where she had bedded down the previous night.

On the lawn several yards behind her was an upright grocery buggy packed with her tent and other belongings, its tires flat. Her bike lay on the sidewalk beside her.

Her purse, she said, fell off her bike the night before while leaving her campsite along the Joe Rodota Trail. “Some girl ran off with it,” she said. Inside was the debit card that allowed her to access her Social Security funds. She had forgotten the passcode for her phone, and she hadn’t been able to call and put a stop on the card, which worried her.

Like scores of other unhoused individuals who in recent months had made their homes on a popular public trail stretching west from Santa Rosa, Hayworth, 50, finds herself once again in limbo — aimlessly wondering where to go next, now that the county has closed the unsightly camp that took root on the trail late last summer and just kept growing.

“I’m glad the kids have the trail back,” Hayworth said brightly. “The kids need it.”

Sonoma County officials estimated as many as 250 people had taken up residence along about 2 miles of the 8½-mile trail linking Santa Rosa and Sebastopol by the time authorities cleared everyone off Friday. County officials declared the sprawling, rat-infested encampment a humanitarian crisis in which there were open drug sales and drug use, inadequate sanitation, fire hazards and many other public health and safety threats.

But even after funneling $2 million into a temporary village of tiny homes for 60 residents fresh off the trail, and persuading several dozen other residents to accept emergency shelter elsewhere, stakeholders estimate 100 or more people were scattered to the winds. All were ordered to leave the trailside encampment with whatever property they could salvage before the chain-link fencing was chained shut.

New encampments of 10 to 12 people already had sprung up Saturday at the Piner Road Skate Park and on a short stretch of road near a cow pasture off West Robles Road in southwest Santa Rosa, though police had stopped by both to tell occupants to move on.

Up and down Sebastopol Road — on roadway shoulders, in parking lots, in the alcoves of commercial buildings — mounded shopping carts piled with bike parts, wooden pallets and bright blue tarps offered clues Saturday of the exodus from the trail encampment. More makeshift wagon trains were amassed outside the trail fencing on both sides of Stony Point Road, as well as on a wide patch of shoulder at Sebastopol Road and Brittain Lane.

If their owners were anywhere nearby, they generally shared the same dazed look — what one man described as a “zombie-like” appearance he’d observed across the area when the trail was officially cleared of its occupants and locked up late Friday.

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

Two of them were Jason Chase and Nikki Ell, who somehow made their way down Sebastopol Road with an old metal bakery rack they’d found behind FoodMaxx one time and fixed with new wheels.

Chase, 31, said he was offered shelter but wasn’t going to take a place that wouldn’t let him be with his wife — an option he was not offered even though co-housing for spouses and domestic partners is among the requirements of a legal settlement reached last summer between the county, the city of Santa Rosa, homeless advocates and several homeless individuals moved from a previous encampment.

“It’s not like I was saying, ‘No, no, no, no,’ because I wanted to stay on the trail,” Chase said. “It’s not the Ritz.”

But given a life already filled with trauma, separation was not an option, he said. So he and Ell traipsed down Sebastopol Road with their belongings, landing late Friday on a wide shoulder near Brittain Lane. They set the bins aside and spent the night sitting up on the cold, metal rack, under a tarp after it was clear they wouldn’t fit on it lying down.

“We used hand sanitizer to keep us warm, because it lights on fire,” Chase said, “when other people were given hotel vouchers. It’s not fair to be either subjected to being arrested for trespassing or have to be separated from my wife.”

For residents who live in the neighborhood just around the corner on Brittain Lane, many of whose homes back up to the Joe Rodota Trail, the prospect of random people setting up unauthorized camps off the trail is concerning. They were adamant that six people who found their way to the end of their road, like Chase and Ell, not return, saying one man had brandished a sledge hammer when a neighbor told him to leave.

“I’m still sleeping with my eyes half open,” said one neighbor, Lino Musso.

Another neighbor, Jason Kindle, said he was looking forward to reclaiming a sense of peace and quiet. Like Musso, his home backs up to the trail, so the decision to clear the encampment comes as a long overdue relief, given the drugs, the rats and the trespassing. A few days ago, a trail occupant threatened to climb the fence into his yard and burn down his family home.

But now, instead of an unsavory mess on the trail, Kindle said, “Everybody they just shotgun blasted within a mile radius of the trail is literally in the neighborhoods.”

He said his police scanner was buzzing all night with calls about unwanted trespassers, while the lock on the fence at the end of Brittain at the trail had been cut repeatedly by people trying to get back into the camp.

Inside the perimeter of chain-link fence patrolled by Sonoma County Regional Park rangers and private security, a team of 18 workers on Saturday set about clearing the trail of debris and belongings left behind by people unable to remove their property in the time allotted.

Several hundred tons of debris were estimated to remain strewn along the path, though crews worked quickly to move belongings along several yards of trail into neat, segregated piles of trash, wooden pallets and other materials on the north side of the trail while raking the southern edge.

Steve White, a division manager with CPM Environmental, said the work was difficult and sobering, given the number of used hypodermic needles crews had found, as well as bottles, buckets and other receptacles containing human waste.

They also had stirred up rats among the campsites, even though traps line the trail. He expected that workers would be clearing the trail through the week before the next phase of sanitizing the trail could begin.

Many former residents tried to return for their belongings, a troubling circumstance for his crews, who aren’t authorized to provide access, he said.

“We’re just here to do our job,” White said.

County officials have said the trail will be closed for several weeks while it is restored for public use.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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