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From Santa Rosa protest camp, homeless advocates call on county, cities for more help

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Local law enforcement and elected officials were considering their response Tuesday to an act of political protest by homeless advocates who formed a makeshift encampment Monday on a former operations base for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The demonstration, by a group called Homeless Action, was aimed at drawing public attention to the widespread shortage of affordable housing, maxed-out homeless shelters with long wait lists and local policies that prohibit people from camping on public property. It featured 12 brightly colored tents scattered around the perimeter of a vacant parking lot off West College Avenue in west Santa Rosa.

About 14 people were living at the site Tuesday, including homeless people and activists with the nascent campaign.

“We cannot wait anymore,” said Carolyn Epple, an organizer with Homeless Action, based in Sonoma County. “We’ve been saying for years that we need to stop criminalizing homelessness and build more housing. Nothing has happened.”

Overnight, the encampment spawned a standoff between homeless advocates touting their cause and officials faced with how to resolve a demonstration they said amounted to trespass on public property. Dismantling the camp and forcing out its residents could spark a backlash, as seen in other California cities where removal of homeless people from large tent cities has drawn national attention.

Debate reignites

The Santa Rosa protest has reignited a heated debate about how the county and local cities confront homelessness and the host of problems that factor into it, including mental health conditions, physical disabilities, substance abuse and financial difficulties. Homeless advocates say the Santa Rosa City Council and the county Board of Supervisors have not allocated enough taxpayer money to pay for services to keep people off the streets.

Elected officials were defensive about their recent investments in aid for the homeless while also acknowledging the enormity of the problem.

“This shows the frustration by our homeless residents in Santa Rosa about the dire situation they’re in,” said Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer. “It has hit the city and the county like a ton of bricks, and it’s exposing a number of gaps, not only in our services, but in our lack of housing inventory.”

Government agencies across California and throughout the Bay Area are confronting the visible side effects of homelessness, from people urinating and defecating on sidewalks, to the building of large encampments that can harm the environment.

County and city officials Tuesday pointed to their spending on homeless programs over the past two years, including the county’s program to allow people to sleep overnight in their vehicles and a new outreach team that connects homeless people to services such as supportive housing.

“Still, I would say we have not done enough in the city or the county,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

Homeless advocates chose the Water Agency property because it is publicly owned and was slated for a project that would have featured 223 units for low-income veterans. That deal has since fallen apart, casting an even sharper focus on the obstacles facing affordable housing development and the short supply of low-income units available countywide.

Officials on Tuesday visited the tent site, dubbed “Camp Michela” by organizers to honor a homeless woman, Michela Wooldridge, 24, who was stabbed to death on a Santa Rosa sidewalk on Halloween night in 2012. Organizers and Zane said Wooldridge was waiting for a shelter spot at the time of her killing.

Officials said that while they do not plan to allow people to remain camped on the site, they don’t plan to kick them off right away.

Seeking sites

Meetings are being organized with homeless people and advocates throughout the week to identify other sites for the encampment.

“What they’re doing — giving homeless people and a very vulnerable population a voice — is admirable,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the property and who serves, along with his fellow supervisors, on the Water Agency’s board of directors. “Our goal is to find an alternative location, potentially on county-owned property, but it’s still up for discussion.”

Zoned for housing

The 7.5-acre Water Agency site, including four unoccupied buildings, is zoned for affordable housing development. It went on back on the market last week after the previous deal for veterans housing fell through, according to Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the agency. It’s appraised value is $6.1 million.

The veterans housing project fell through because Santa Rosa’s Economic Development and Housing Department couldn’t pull together the financing in time, Water Agency officials said.

The Water Agency moved its operations and maintenance headquarters to the main office on Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa last year.

County supervisors said allowing the homeless camp to remain would hamper the Water Agency’s ability to sell the property for affordable housing development.

“I would hate to see obstacles to sites that are zoned for housing like this,” Carrillo said. “Yet, I recognize this portion of the community is one of the most vulnerable and they’re looking for a safe place. That’s why the county has to be creative in working with the homeless folks to address the question: If not at this site, where?”

Tuesday afternoon, homeless people mingled about the encampment. Some relaxed in their tents, while others sat huddled in small circles eating snacks and talking about how to create similar camps in other parts of the county. A main topic was how to change local laws that prohibit camping outdoors.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County both have such policies.

The people in the camp Tuesday talked about their endless search for a safe place to sleep at night. Some had been brought to the site by Homeless Action organizers leading the protest.

“It’s hard being a woman out there, especially if you’re not willing to give yourself over (to a man) in exchange for protection … it comes at a cost, and I can’t do that,” said Lorrine Renee, who said she’s been homeless for 2½ years and moved to a small yellow tent in the encampment Monday night. “It’s dangerous, you’re constantly afraid of waking up and finding hands in places you don’t want to. They’re trying to touch you and take your stuff.”

Stories of abuse

Other women talked about being sexually assaulted and physically abused by men they encountered on the streets.

“You wake up and someone is kicking you, stealing your stuff, sometimes they’re forcing themselves on women,” said Roseanna Gonzalez, who also moved to the tent city Monday night. “You try to roll with the punches, but right now, I feel so blessed to be here.”

Elected officials said they grapple with the plight of homeless residents in Sonoma County and the taxpayers dollars they allocate to address the issue. The reports of violence make the problems more pressing, officials said.

“It makes me cringe to hear that, and I know that it’s happening on an ongoing basis,” Zane said. “We need to talk about how do we provide a safe and secure place for women. So while this creates an obstacle to getting the property built into affordable housing, at the same time it’s putting an important spotlight on a real societal problem, and that’s a good thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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