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Santa Rosa cleared out downtown homeless encampments under Highway 101 this week after they swelled dramatically following last month’s wildfires and recent wet weather.

This time, however, city officials say they’re not going to let the camps return, taking a tougher approach to the issue in response to a chorus of complaints from nearby businesses owners and residents.

“We’re going to be strictly enforcing the laws related to blocking the sidewalk and urinating in public,” said Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, head of the city’s downtown enforcement team.

The city’s more forceful approach has triggered strong opposition from homeless activists who turned out during the cleanup, filming police interactions with people and in some cases interfering with efforts to evaluate people’s housing needs, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager.

“Some of the advocates who were there were disruptive and interfering with the outreach efforts,” Kuykendall said.

The latest phase of the city’s effort to clean up high-risk homeless encampments — viewed by many as health, safety and environmental hazards — has sparked vocal and at times vitriolic condemnation of the city.

Mayor Chris Coursey and his council colleagues got an earful Tuesday from angry activists, one of whom, Merlin Davis, called them “fascists” and gave the council an upraised middle finger as he was escorted out for disrupting the meeting.

“You are stripping people of the only cover between them and the freezing night sky,” Davis said. “It is cruel and unusual.”

But residents of surrounding neighborhoods appreciated the city’s efforts to clean out the encampments, which many felt was long overdue. Allen Thomas, who is active in the West End neighborhood association, has long said it is unsafe and unacceptable to allow people to block the sidewalks.

“We’re very happy to have our streets and sidewalks back,” Thomas said Friday.

The city has been regularly monitoring the Highway 101 overpasses at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets for months, regularly sending outreach workers there to steer people toward housing, police to enforce laws, and public works crews to clean out the accumulated garbage.

But homeless residents always returned — often hours later — drawn by the overpasses’ shelter from the weather, close proximity to free food and other homeless services, and the safety in numbers offered by the encampments.

Their numbers began swelling after the city cleared out and fenced off the long-time encampment on city property at the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road, known as Homeless Hill.

That cleanup was done in conjunction with a 50-bed expansion of the city’s homeless shelter and an intensive effort to get people into housing.

That effort had some success, but the camps got even bigger after the Tubbs fire swept through the city, displacing people from other encampments, including one on Bicentennial Way. As recently as last week, an estimated 80 people were camped out under the overpasses.

“The vast majority of people realized that it had gotten out of control,” said Officer Brian Sinigiani, who felt the cleanup went fairly smoothly.

As he cleaned up some garbage on Sixth Street on Friday, Ron Edwards likened the swelling of the underpass population to the “clogging of an artery.”

Edwards raked up cigarette butts, clothing, food wrappers and bicycle parts into a pile on the sidewalk, hoping police would leave him alone long enough to cobble together the parts he needed to get a bicycle working. His was recently stolen from the nearby Redwood Gospel Mission, where he is staying.

Homeless in Sonoma County since May, Edwards, who grew up in the East Bay, said he had been living peacefully for two months in A Place to Play Park on Third Street, sleeping in the bushes. Park maintenance workers found his stuff and police officers kicked him out of the park and told him not to return, he said.

Edwards thinks the solution is for the city to set aside a piece of land and “set up some teepees” that people can rent for a nominal amount. Such a sanctioned encampment on city property, however, has been a nonstarter with the City Council.

After a pause to the cleanup program during the fires, police taped up notices last week that the area would be cleared out soon. Outreach workers from Catholic Charities fanned out this week to convince people that, this time, the city was serious about getting them into housing.

“What’s different this time is that in addition to the cleanup, we’re actually relocating people,” Kuykendall said.

The city had about 25 beds open in the Sam Jones Hall homeless shelter at the beginning of the week. Over the summer the shelter was expanded from 138 to 188 beds and new staff added to help people find housing, all at a cost of about $500,000.

Catholic Charities also coordinated with other shelters in the city to find additional beds for people while they worked to find them permanent housing, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

About 20 additional people went into housing this week as a result of the underpass cleanups, but Holmes said the effort isn’t finished.

“We’re not done yet,” Holmes said. “I will never stop advocating for more beds for people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Councilman Chris Rogers said the city is trying to strike a balance between boosting services to help people find permanent housing and addressing behaviors in public spaces that violate others’ rights to enjoy those spaces. He said he supported the cleanup because he understood there were sufficient services for people who needed them.

“We’re making a deliberate effort not just to push people along, but to actually get people access to services,” Rogers said.

While the city didn’t have enough shelter beds itself to house everyone, it did have vouchers ready to place people in motels and hotels who were “willing and able” to go, Kuykendall said. As it turned out, no one took the vouchers, she said.

Some of the activists made it difficult for outreach workers to have productive conversations with homeless people because they filmed the interactions, making people uncomfortable, Wolf said.

Activists filmed the interactions because posted notices were more threatening those of the past, putting people were on edge, said Adrienne Lauby, of Homeless Action.

“It feels like the city put us in a horrible situation,” Lauby said.

The better solution would have been to set aside a piece of property where people could go if the overpasses were deemed unsafe, she said. But, she noted, Councilwoman Julie Combs proposed that exact idea on Tuesday and couldn’t get any of her colleagues to support even a discussion of a sanctioned encampment.

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

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