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Forum On Homeless Hill

The city will host a community meeting on Monday to outline a program to address the health, safety and fire issues stemming from the homeless encampment at Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road. The 6 p.m. meeting will be held at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Road.

Wally Pernell and Genene Marinello sat on the sidewalk recently under the Highway 101 overpass at Sixth Street in Santa Rosa to escape the afternoon heat. Marinello, 46, fed her pet teacup Chihuahua a hot dog and chatted with Pernell, 71. While both are homeless and battle substance addiction, they have different hopes for the future.

With a sleeping bag providing comfort from the concrete and hiding a shared bottle of vodka, Marinello wants to get off the street and into a shelter and rehab. Pernell is fine where he is, and just wants to be left alone.

The two are emblematic of the daily struggles faced by more than 1,600 unsheltered homeless people in Santa Rosa. It is an increasingly visible population vexing an increasingly frustrated public.

For the politicians, police, firefighters and aid workers on the front lines, it is a critical time. Santa Rosa police are stepping up their efforts to clear residents from the large encampment in the so-called Homeless Hill area of Bennett Valley and clean up other camps under Highway 101. Already, officers arrest some of those campers, but many return at night.

“I hope it’s not something that’s unsolvable, but I don’t know of any community that has found the silver bullet,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey.

The city declared an emergency nearly a year ago to address its homeless crisis, and has made some headway, cutting its homeless population by 13 percent, according to a countywide census.

But Santa Rosa remains home to the county’s largest population of homeless people, three times larger than the number of beds available for temporary shelter.

There’s a waiting list for beds at every city shelter.

“What’s left to local government has its roots in the global economy,” Coursey said. “We have people who are working full time and are homeless. Part of it is a need for more housing, but part of it is an upside-down economy.”

Camp cleanup

Starting this month, the city is launching a concerted effort to clear the largest of its 44 identified homeless encampments, the Homeless Hill camp on city-owned land off Farmers Lane. There, in the shade of eucalyptus trees and overgrown brush between the Calvary Catholic Cemetery and Congregation Shomrei Torah, a ramshackle collection of tents is home to about four dozen people.

Complaints from neighbors and concerns about fire danger on the parched hills prompted the city to act beginning late last month, when crews mowed weeds and carved a fire line on the outskirts of the camp.

It was the first step in dismantling a shantytown that has existed for decades. Across the city, an estimated 443 people — 28 percent of the total homeless population — live in such makeshift clusters, in creekbeds, under freeways and alongside walking paths.

But for city officials, the Farmers Lane camp combines the most significant public health and safety concerns — garbage, human waste and fire hazards — with evidence that many who live there are particularly ill-suited to living out in the open because of health issues, disability and age.

“I believe some of our most vulnerable and at-risk community members are at those locations,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, the former police chief and a strong advocate for the homeless.

Those told to leave Homeless Hill will have first crack at a new program run out of Sam Jones Hall, the city’s largest shelter, on Finley Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa. The city will pay $600,000 to make available 50 beds typically opened only in winter in the hall’s gymnasium, and as well as assistance with social services and long-term housing, officials said.

The hope is those who are ready to accept help get more of it this time, said Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder. “It’s different because we have the shelter beds open. We have a place for people to go, and once they go there are services that are there.”

Unforgiving housing market

The more aggressive enforcement, however, comes as record housing costs are squeezing even the region’s middle-income residents out of the market. The city says it will not roust homeless residents without doing a better job of finding them housing. But the realities of an unforgiving market and maxed-out shelter system make that commitment uncertain.

Even at Sam Jones Hall, with 138 year-round beds, more than 170 people are on the waiting list.

Santa Rosa dedicates $1.8 million annually to homeless services, a police substation, six officers and a sergeant to tackle homeless-related issues. The city averages about 686 arrests each month and about a third — 230 people — say they are homeless.

Many of them wind up in jail, where Sonoma County spends $16 million a year to house homeless inmates, according to a 2015 county study. At any given time, a third of the Sonoma County Jail population identifies as homeless.

Santa Rosa police aren’t looking to arrest the homeless, said Sgt. Jon Wolf, who oversees the department’s six-officer downtown team. When an arrest is made — for illegal camping, public drunkenness or other infraction — it is typically not the first time an officer confronts someone, Wolf said.

Through May, of the 13,423 medical and fire calls in Santa Rosa, 11 percent, or 1,476, were to assist homeless people, according to the city. Nearly 1,000 of those calls were for medical problems, leading to a disproportionate number of homeless people using the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital emergency room, according to city data.

Two other pilot programs just getting started in Santa Rosa and the county are seeking to target the most vulnerable homeless people for immediate placement into housing and receipt of other aid services.

Outreach workers also will try a new approach of connecting homeless people with their families and loved ones to see if a rapprochement can lead to getting into a home. Even so, most people on Homeless Hill already have been contacted by homeless outreach workers and added to lists for services.

“How many times can you ask someone to get on a list to get housing?” said Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger. “If we ask someone to move but we don’t have enough space for them in shelters we’re just spinning our wheels.”

Criminal justice spin cycle

Pernell and Marinello are aware of the dance they’re in even while sitting on the sidewalk sipping vodka. They could be arrested, booked and cited, leaving them a 3-mile walk from the jail back to downtown along with a scheduled court date.

If their citation is an infraction and they skip their court date, fees accumulate — some local homeless people owe tens of thousands of dollars in court fees, said Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi.

If they’re charged with a misdemeanor and miss their court date, a warrant is issued for their arrest. Santa Rosa police often search homeless camps looking for residents with outstanding warrants and those arrests can lead to jail time. But there aren’t enough beds in the jail, so many times people booked on outstanding warrants are given another day in court and released, Pozzi said.

In the coming months, as Santa Rosa expands its cleanups, Pernell and Marinello will be targeted by a team of social workers and police if they continue to make Highway 101 underpasses their home.

While many on the street are victims, a sense of community and camaraderie fill a human need.

“I know people who’ve lived in the same house for 40 years and don’t know their neighbors,” Pernell said. “This is a whole different community. Everyone knows everyone. We support each other, we have each other’s backs.”

The difficulty in addressing homelessness with policy and housing is that underlying personal issues can defy outside solutions, said Jeff Gilman, executive director of the Redwood Gospel Mission, a key charitable group based in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square area.

“Homelessness in America is far more related to broken relationships than anything else,” he said.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com.

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