The sprawling oaks and green grass of Santa Rosa’s Doyle Community Park have beckoned Carol Cranston and her dog Bingo almost every day for the past seven years.
Now, the oasis in the middle of the city between two gurgling creeks is calling out to the homeless.
Over the past few months, transient numbers have swelled, alarming neighbors and others who fear the park is being ruined by a segment of the population that’s monopolizing picnic areas by day and camping at night.
“They are starting to take over,” said Cranston, a retired teacher who lives on nearby Sheridan Drive, as she walked near a group lounging on the lawn. “We don’t want these people in this park.”
Critics blame the surge on the city’s handling of its homeless population, estimated at 1,900. They believe many were driven to Doyle when officials in August rousted 42 people living in one of the largest encampments near Farmers Lane. And they expect more will come when the city closes a second haunt at the Sixth Street freeway underpass by Oct. 16.
“Where are they going to go?” said Emily Winfield, also a retired teacher, whose Brookside Drive home backs up to the park. “The city doesn’t quite have its act together.”
While city officials say they’re aware of increased homeless people at Doyle, they don’t think it’s because other camps have been broken up around town.
About 30 former residents of Homeless Hill accepted temporary housing at Sam Jones Hall and more are expected to join them when the underpass with its 30 to 40 occupants is closed. Also, hours are being expanded at a daytime drop-in center on Morgan Street that could keep homeless people out of public places.
Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager, said it’s all part of a coordinated effort to get people off the streets and provide services.
“People are quick to blame our efforts but we’re doing everything we can not to displace people,” she said.
Once the underpass encampment is closed, decision-makers including police and homeless advocates, will decide the next step. Doyle Park, tucked among Sonoma, Hoen and Brookwood avenues along Matanzas and Spring creeks, was already on a citywide list of 44 sites where homeless people hang out, Kuykendall said.
“We’ll need to decide if that’s the next site,” she said. “People are camping everywhere.”
Overnight camping is not allowed at Doyle. Rangers close the gates to car traffic and lock the bathrooms at dusk and don’t open them until dawn.
Still, many homeless people remain, spreading sleeping bags on tables or erecting tents along the creeks. Some living in their cars park just outside the gates and walk in.
Others come only during the day, riding up on bikes or toting grocery bags, a menagerie of pets in tow, to relax in the sunshine and cook on the barbecue grills.
Paul Turpin, 21, said he’s seen the number of people sleeping in the park grow since he arrived about four months ago. He said police forced him to leave Rae Park near City Hall and before that, a spot on Bicentennial Way near Fountain Grove Parkway.
“We’re getting kicked from place to place,” said Turpin, seated at a picnic table strewn with bongs, soft drink bottles and a bag of powdered donuts. “We always move. For the time being, we have to do what we can to survive.”
Another homeless man, Ricky Owens, 43, said Doyle “feels safe” compared to other places. He bent at the waist and flipped his long, wet hair back after emerging from mobile shower trucked in by the city and run by Catholic Charities.
“Awesome!” said Owens, who lives with his girlfriend, Jennifer “Angel” Stroude, 37, in his Dodge station wagon just outside the park gates. “I feel like a million bucks.”
But neighbors and some park users said the city is only encouraging homeless people to come. They accuse police of turning away from the problem.
Cranston said homeless people litter the park with trash and hypodermic needles, scaring off families who once enjoyed the park.
On walks with Bingo, she’s stumbled across wads of toilet paper with human waste.
“You don’t see a lot of it,” Cranston said. “But you can smell it.”
To maintain a hold on the cherished spot, supporters are reserving picnic tables at the west end for three Saturdays and taking part in a cleanup.
A social media post encourages people to come out and “fly a kite, play chess and on and on.”
“It’s people literally reclaiming the western end of the park,” Winfield said.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.