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