Inside Santa Rosa’s campaign to eliminate large homeless camps
Like hundreds of others who live in Santa Rosa with no place to call home, Robin Hall can never relax.
Since local officials last April closed a long-term encampment in Roseland, where Hall took harbor for nearly six months, she has hauled her belongings from place to place.
Sometimes it is the result of an organized sweep that displaces an entire camp. Other times she is spurred onward by a police officer, citing a violation of a city code. Again and again, she packs up and moves on, returning to a grinding, nomadic life familiar to those on the streets.
Hall, 43, went where others went when forced to move along. They looked for places where they might be left alone: vacant lots, rural byways, the Joe Rodota Regional Trail.
“It is good to be around your peers,” she said. “When you’re alone, you don’t know what could happen to you — and it does happen.”
She landed a few weeks back at Northpoint Corporate Center in southwest Santa Rosa, where more than 100 inhabitants have been camping out, mostly in ramshackle RVs, trailers and cars and, lately, a few tent-dwellers like Hall.
She will soon be made to leave there, too.
The 250-acre business park is the latest point of friction in a campaign to eliminate large homeless encampments around the city, as well as the significant health, safety and nuisance impacts they create. They include improper disposal of human waste, drug use and discarded needles, mounds of unsightly trash, open barbecues and people bathing in decorative ponds.
The city’s attempt to prevent illegal encampments from taking root in the business park and other parts of Santa Rosa has pushed homeless people from one place to the next while government and nonprofit leaders have yet to find legal locations for them to live in peace.
Homeless Hill, the Sixth Street underpass, Roseland’s Dollar Tree, the Joe Rodota Trail. One by one they’ve been cleared of campers with the result that other encampments soon gain mass, draw attention and are disbanded in turn.
Public officials and service providers say they are working to get people into housing. But they cannot let camps continue when they present health and safety risks, including lack of sanitation, environmental threats, fire risks, trespassing and other issues.
Yet with each new action, there remain sizable numbers of unserved homeless individuals still living on the streets.
“We can’t do this forever,” conceded Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts. “Ultimately, we want to solve it. Plain and simple, we’ve got to put permanent supportive housing forward.”
Sonoma County and its largest city have grappled for decades with the problem of homelessness, in large part because of a regionwide housing shortage and skyrocketing costs.
In recent years, homeless people have been moving into highly visible parts of the city, raising public awareness of the issue and prompting millions of dollars in government spending on shelter expansion, permanent housing and services.
The number of homeless people has actually declined in Sonoma County since 2011, when more than 4,500 were counted during an annual census at the height of the Great Recession. Today, there are around 3,000 homeless people throughout the county, a little over half of them in Santa Rosa.