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Santa Rosa council members agree that the city needs to expand its services for its most vulnerable homeless residents during this cold, wet winter.

In their meeting this week, the council endorsed a closer look at options including short-term rental assistance, adding portable buildings to the Sam Jones Hall shelter and turning the National Guard Armory into a homeless shelter.

But one thing the council didn’t do was directly address concerns raised by downtown residents about the large number of homeless people congregating under nearby highway overpasses this winter.

Several residents of the West End, Railroad Square and St. Rose neighborhoods told the council they no longer feel safe in their own environs.

“It’s become unbearable,” said Catherine Dale, who lives just east of Highway 101 downtown. “We are overrun as a neighborhood.”

Dale and others have been pressuring the city to take a tougher approach to the homeless problem under the overpasses. They argue that lax enforcement of a variety of laws, such as prohibitions on camping, littering, loitering and blocking sidewalks, is effectively sanctioning the encampments.

“Honestly, we don’t feel safe anymore,” said Denise Hill, whose has lived in the St. Rose neighborhood for two decades. “I can’t cross under Fifth, Sixth or Ninth Street because I do feel threatened.”

Hill was one of more than 30 residents who attended a meeting organized last week by Dale at Catholic Charities’ Family Support Center on A Street to seek solutions.

There was general agreement that the concentration of homeless under the downtown overpasses stems from several factors, including the harsh winter, the lack of housing options and the proximity of the overpasses to three downtown homeless services providers.

The Redwood Gospel Mission and St. Vincent De Paul Society dining room are located on the west side of the highway, while the Catholic Charities’ Homeless Resource Center is directly opposite on the east side.

“It is apparent to me that having these service providers in such high density in this part of town … has a negative impact on the neighborhood,” said new Councilman Jack Tibbetts, the executive director of the St. Vincent De Paul Society.

Tibbetts said he has to balance that knowledge with his compassion for the homeless and the St. Vincent De Paul Society’s mission to serve them.

Santa Rosa police officers face that balancing act every day as they respond to neighborhood complaints and seek to enforce the law while also showing compassion for people in dire straits and not violating their civil rights, said Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, head of the city’s downtown enforcement team.

“It’s a tough issue,” Wolf said Thursday as he supervised officers checking on several homeless people who had spent a wet night in Fremont Park.

Officers patrol the overpasses every morning and tell people to move along if they or their possessions are blocking the sidewalk, Wolf said. Most of the time people comply and cause no trouble, either taking belongings with them or securing them in a way that tells officers they are not junk, he said.

When the debris becomes excessive, often because of an influx of blankets, food or other donations brought by residents, officers call for a public works crew to come remove it. The department discourages people from dropping off donations directly to the homeless for this very reason, directing donations to services organizations like Catholic Charities.

On Thursday morning, the area below the Sixth Street overpass was filled with tents, tarps, sleeping bags and shopping carts, but, unlike Ninth Street, had few people.

One was Doug Thompson, 60, who said he thinks the city needs to identify a place for homeless people to camp. He said he’s interested in getting access to one of the portable huts he understood may soon be available, but he knows finding the right location is a challenge.

“Therein lies the problem,” Thompson said. “There’s no neighborhood where that’s going to be seen as a good thing.”

Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger said officers are doing the best they can with the resources they have to limit nuisances and safety risks while not criminalizing homelessness.

“You can sit in public all day long, but you can’t obstruct the sidewalk. That’s basically the line we walk,” Snetsinger said. “People should be able to walk underneath there, but at the same time, I’ve got no place to send these folks. It’s frustrating.”

Council members feel police are doing a fine job walking that line, but six months after declaring a homeless emergency, they’re still not sure what the solution is.

“This is a frustrating problem and we haven’t found the answer, but we’re going to keep working on it,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.

The current plan is to try to increase the number of beds available to the homeless as quickly as possible. That includes using five portable classrooms to expand existing shelter capacity by up to 100 people, a fix that could cost up to $50,000. An additional boost of $125,000 for rapid rehousing might help shelter up to 30 additional people. And renting the armory as a nighttime shelter, at a cost of $41,200 per month, might house an additional 50 people per night.

Councilwoman Julie Combs, a member of the council’s homeless subcommittee, said she sympathizes with neighbors, but the focus has to be on creating additional housing not cracking down on the homeless with tougher enforcement.

“We can’t police our way out of this one,” she said.

Combs characterized the council’s move Tuesday as an important step in the right direction.

“It isn’t enough or fast enough, but we’re doing the best that we can,” Combs said.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, the former police chief who also serves on the homeless subcommittee, said the complexity of the problem is one of the reasons he helped organize the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, a group of charities, neighbors, public officials and other stakeholders working to find solutions to homelessness, as opposed to simply funding more shelter beds.

“My interest is in solving homelessness, not just managing it,” Schwedhelm said.

Toward that end the group is hosting a homeless solutions summit scheduled for Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 in Santa Rosa. The event will include a talk by homelessness expert Iain De Jong. The registration deadline is Jan. 23 and cost is $50, but no one will be turned away for inability to pay.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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