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Homeless advocates allege human rights abuses in Sonoma County

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Homeless individuals in Sonoma County are systemically having their rights violated by police singling them out for infractions and by authorities and outreach workers neglecting those with disabilities, an advocacy group charged in a new report.

Kathleen Finigan, an advocate with Homeless Action, detailed the group’s findings last month in a presentation to the Sonoma County Commission for Human Rights.

The 14-page report said that current treatment by county and Santa Rosa officials, police, and outreach workers interacting with homeless people in Sonoma County violates the 4th and 8th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act and seven articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted by the United Nations that outlines individual human rights.

Homeless people are being relocated continuously and cited or arrested when they refuse to move, a potential example of “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the 8th Amendment, the report contends. They also claim that those with disabilities are not receiving proper accommodations, as spelled out under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We are compelled to demand immediate relief for people who have become refugees in their own country,” Finigan said at the June 26 meeting.

Lt. Mike Lazzarini of the Santa Rosa Police Department did not respond directly to any allegations but said the department takes human rights seriously.

“In all circumstances, the Police Department exercises compassion and care related to our citizens’ constitutional rights,” Lazzarini said.

Homeless Action unsuccessfully sought a restraining order against the city of Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission and Sonoma County in March to prevent a Roseland Village encampment from being cleared out before all residents received appropriate accommodations. The motion was denied by Judge Vince Chhabria in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

In his decision, Chhabria said that the government had made “adequate shelter options available to encampment residents.” But Homeless Action contends that proper shelter options were not made available for all encampment residents, and the group continues to press its legal case in federal court against the CDC, county and city of Santa Rosa. The next conference in the proceedings is scheduled for Jan. 22, 2019.

Housing officials and homeless care providers said they are struggling to offer support to the county’s homeless population, which totals nearly 3,000, about 2,000 of which remain unsheltered. Many of those people have been on the move since the city began sweeping several longstanding encampments last year.

The goal of that enforcement effort is to address the needs of homeless residents and “mitigate impacts to surrounding communities,” according to a city fact sheet.

Homeless Action representatives are urging the county’s Human Rights Commission to take up their claims in a meeting next Tuesday. A resolution they authored, set for consideration on the commission’s agenda, claims local governments have failed to establish “pragmatic solutions for homelessness.”

“We’re hoping that the county and in particular the Board of Supervisors will take it seriously that there are human rights violations in allowing so many people to live outside, and come up with practical solutions,” said Adrienne Lauby, co-founder of Homeless Action.

The resolution asks the commission to formally request that the Board of Supervisors designate a safe camping area in Sonoma County with access to restrooms and case management services. Unsanctioned camping is illegal both in the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

Kevin Jones, chairman of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, said the report raised some valid concerns that deserve attention, but he is not “overly hopeful” the Board of Supervisors will sanction an official camping area.

“I don’t think encampments are long-term viable, but in the short term I think something needs to be available,” Jones said.

The pressure by homeless advocates comes after the Community Development Commission, the county’s affordable housing division, presented a report to the Board of Supervisors at their June 5 meeting, which claimed that sanctioned encampments are not a viable solution to homelessness. It was based on a report from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness published in May that called into question the safety and benefit of such encampments.

Still, advocates said current efforts to alleviate homelessness aren’t enough to eliminate encampments.

“The people are being scattered in their community from place to place,” Lauby said at the June 26 meeting. “There’s no appropriate health or sanitation considerations for people who are living outdoors. Disability issues are not being addressed in the shelter system and certainly not on the streets.”

Advocates also say that appropriate accommodations were not considered for disabled members of the encampment when they were offered shelter space.

Alegría De La Cruz, a Sonoma County chief deputy county counsel, said that a number of requests for accommodations were considered by the CDC during the Roseland encampment sweep, and emphasized that it is a legal requirement of any public agency to assess such requests and provide reasonable accommodations when necessary.

Privacy partitions were purchased and offered to those with post-traumatic stress conditions and other disabilities at Sam Jones Hall, the Santa Rosa shelter that is the county’s largest homeless facility, said De La Cruz, who is representing the county and the Community Development Commission in the lawsuit filed by Homeless Action. Pets, which many homeless individuals have — and which once limited their ability to enter the shelter — are now permitted at Sam Jones Hall as well.

“I can totally understand that people have had negative experiences in homeless shelters in the past,” De La Cruz said. “But there has been a significant policy shift in shelters recently.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meghan Herbst at 707-521-5250 or meghan.herbst@pressdemocrat.com.

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