Concerns about disruptive behavior from homeless people in downtown Santa Rosa took center stage Wednesday as business owners and other community leaders gathered to air frustrations, brainstorm solutions and learn about work already underway to alleviate the persistent problem.
More than 50 people attended a morning event organized by the city and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce at the offices of zentiv agency on Fourth Street that officials hoped would trigger an ongoing discussion about how to address homelessness in the commercial core of Sonoma County’s largest municipality.
“This kind of challenge is not new, but it is something that needs to be dealt with, and organizing oneself as a downtown is one excellent way of handling ... and ultimately cleaning up after bad behavior,” said Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer. “So I do encourage you to stay on that note, and to consider this the beginning of closing the gaps in what is happening downtown.”
While Santa Rosa’s homeless resident population is actually lower than it was just a few years ago, projects such as creek cleanup work and the SMART commuter rail line have made them more visible in public places as they’ve been pushed out of campsites. That has fueled problems downtown, which attendees said Wednesday include loitering, panhandling and defecating, urinating or otherwise creating a mess in public places.
Mark Auerbach, owner of Mark Allen Jewelers, said Fourth Street is plagued by an “exceptionally large” group of people “choosing a lifestyle” of homelessness. He said homeless people regularly leave drug paraphernalia and other items by the entrance to his store, forcing him and his staff to clean for a half-hour many mornings.
Auerbach criticized the city for not taking more action and suggested pushing for an ordinance that would disallow “behavior that’s out of line” from homeless people.
Other solutions attendees offered included providing more resources for housing, mentoring, job training and mental health services. Some said they wanted to see a more persistent presence downtown from city officials or community organizations.
“We have to understand and be clear that there’s a difference between the mentally ill and people who are experiencing homelessness,” said Michael Hyman, owner of the Pawn Advantage Store. “There are solutions, but one size does not fit all.”
Hyman encouraged attendees to “take back our town” and be proactive about addressing the problem by calling the city’s Homeless Outreach Services Team or the police as necessary.
Charities, neighbors, public officials and other stakeholders are already working on proposing solutions via the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective. And Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, said the community could move toward ending homelessness altogether just by more effectively using existing resources.
“We do know some ways to help us get to the next step,” Holmes said. “It’s just a matter of getting everyone on the same page and swimming in that same direction.”
Moving forward, business and property owners may propose a new downtown organization to handle some of the issues raised Wednesday, said Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
The homeless collective also is organizing a homeless solutions summit scheduled for Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 in Santa Rosa.
Sonoma County homeless statistics
The county conducts regular point-in-time counts of homeless people in the region, a now-annual effort formerly done every two years. According to the latest census from January 2016, the county’s homeless population numbered:
• 2,906 in 2016
• 3,107 in 2015
• 4,280 in 2013
• 4,539 in 2011
• 3,247 in 2009
Obstacles to attaining permanent housing among 2016 survey respondents:
• 67 percent couldn’t afford rent
• 52 percent had no job or not enough income
• 24 percent had no money for moving costs
• 24 percent cited no housing availability
• 19 percent cited bad credit
Source: Applied Survey Research