Tent village in southwest Santa Rosa expands after downtown homeless camps cleared out

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After Santa Rosa shut down homeless encampments in downtown Highway 101 underpasses last week, numerous people who lived there have migrated to the site of a two-year old tent village on a publicly owned lot in Roseland, frustrating Sonoma County officials in charge of the property and adding another layer of complexity to the region’s longstanding housing crisis.

The collection of tents behind the Dollar Tree store on Sebastopol Road appears to have swollen to at least 75 tents, double its prior size. The growth has surprised city leaders who thought more people would move from the underpasses into shelter beds or other housing options.

The situation also has inflamed political tensions — the property is owned by the county, but the neighborhood was just annexed into Santa Rosa city limits — and escalated debate about whether local officials should allow encampments as a temporary solution to the lack of affordable homes in the area.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents Roseland, called the shift of homeless residents into the area a “new twist on an old problem” and lamented that it occurred so quickly after the neighborhood’s annexation.

“I believe that the City Council and the city of Santa Rosa acted with the best of intentions, but the result of their policy decision is that the homeless problem was shifted from a more wealthy area into a much poorer area,” she said hours after visiting the encampment Tuesday. “It was shifted from downtown, where you’ve got a lot of businesspeople driving to work there every day, into the most socioeconomically disadvantaged ZIP code in the county … It’s a very vulnerable community, and it’s very frustrating to see social problems essentially being shifted in that direction.”

Originally set up under the name Camp Michela in honor of a slain homeless woman, Michela Wooldridge, the encampment is now known as Remembrance Village, according to Adrienne Lauby of the activist group Homeless Action. Lauby and other activists helped homeless people move from the underpasses to the Roseland encampment site, but they didn’t choose the spot themselves, she said.

Anthony “New York” Rodriguez, who leads the tent village’s camp council, said he invited the newcomers to set up on the other side of the fence that shields the original encampment from public view.

“It’s like this: I’m homeless myself. Who am I to tell them you can’t put a tent on the other side of the wall, the fence?” Rodriguez, 61, said during an interview Wednesday morning. “We’re all in the same boat and fighting the same battle — homeless. And it’s like, if we can do it, we might as well do it all together.”

But the swollen camp presents numerous public health and logistical concerns that could vex county and city officials who were already struggling to house chronically homeless people before October’s fires, which destroyed about 5 percent of the city’s housing stock.

Hopkins cited worries about unsanitary living conditions, particularly a lack of sufficient bathroom and showering options at the Roseland site, as well as the broader impacts on Roseland. She said she hoped the tent village’s sudden growth could be addressed somehow by a new joint committee of supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council members. The committee was formed as part of an effort from the two governments to collaborate in improving services to the area’s homeless population, estimated at roughly 2,800, equivalent to a rate of homelessness about three times the national average.

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs said the city didn’t foresee such a large concentration of homeless people moving to Roseland, and officials moved to clear out the underpass encampments with the “underlying assumption” that more people would accept a spot at a shelter.

“I think we should have understood that we have a population that can’t all go to the shelters,” Combs said. “We also need to understand that the shelter is grossly overcrowded at this point. We can’t keep moving people into the same space. So if there isn’t public space and there isn’t private space, where are people supposed to go?”

Combs said city officials are analyzing the possibility of allowing more sanctioned parking spots where homeless people can sleep overnight. If the City Council signs off on such a program — Catholic Charities currently facilitates a scaled-down version — Combs said she’d be comfortable allowing people to pitch tents in the parking spots.

Catholic Charities has already transitioned 26 people this month from the downtown freeway underpasses into a shelter, primarily at Sam Jones Hall, where the city recently added an extra 50 beds, according to Jennielynn Holmes, the organization’s director of shelter and housing. About 20 beds at the hall remain open, and Catholic Charities is still actively working to get more people camped out at the Roseland site into shelter beds, Holmes said earlier this week.

But some of the homeless people living behind the Sebastopol Road store intend to remain, perhaps as part of a more formal expansion of the smaller self-governed camp that set up there in late 2015.

“It will work once we get some organization,” said Steve Singleton, who moved from the Ninth Street underpass to the Roseland site. “We want to be productive here. We don’t want to be just an idle place for these people just to hang out — like the underpasses.”

Hopkins said she heard from employees at the Dollar Tree of an increase in shoplifting after the additional tents came in, which encampment leaders say they are taking a hard line against.

“If you get caught stealing in that Dollar Tree right now, as far as I’m concerned, you can go,” said Singleton, 55. “That’s just showing that it’s OK for everybody else to.”

It’s not clear how long city and county leaders will allow the tents to remain on the Roseland site, but law enforcement doesn’t appear to have any imminent plans to clear it out.

“As I understand it, the city and the county are looking at what’s going to happen long term with that camp,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, who heads the city’s downtown enforcement team. “I can’t tell you what direction we’re going with it. We’re not actively out there. We do patrol, though, just for the purpose of maintaining order.”

Still, county officials say the tents will need to go eventually because the roughly 7-acre site that includes both the Dollar Tree is supposed to become a new mixed-used development with a public plaza, a civic building and 175 housing units, among other commercial offerings.

The county’s Community Development Commission, which is in charge of the property, continues to have its sights set on redevelopment of the land, said Margaret Van Vliet, the agency’s executive director.

“We can’t sustain this — it’s not going to work for the surrounding businesses or the neighborhood, and so we got to figure out what our options are,” Van Vliet said of the influx of homeless people to the site. “We continue to believe that there is a spot to go for everyone, but a lot of people refuse services, and they don’t want to go inside and they don’t want to be helped. And so I don’t know what to do about that, but they don’t get to just be on this piece of publicly owned land that has got other uses and those other businesses are being disrupted and we’re going to do a redevelopment.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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