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.