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Inside Santa Rosa’s campaign to eliminate large homeless camps

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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.”

Visibility increases

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.

But to much of the public, their numbers seem to have grown as homeless camps have become more visible. Creekbed encampments were dispersed several years ago to protect water quality, while camps along the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train tracks were removed when commuter rail service began a year ago.

People who have been rousted end up congregating in places where they see other people camping, thinking they will be left alone. Increasingly larger encampments result.

The situation is projected to get worse. The October fires destroyed 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock, driving up rents and home prices.

“We’re not able to get people who are homeless into housing as quickly because the fires have turned the market upside down,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s largest service provider and the city’s primary partner.

Over the last year, the number of homeless people in Sonoma County has increased 6 percent. People who are chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for at least a year and have a disabling condition — has jumped 25 percent.

Unresolved battles

The city’s strategy to address its homeless problem has triggered legal and political battles that are still unresolved.

Many of the unhoused and their advocates say those who remain homeless are living the only way they can in the absence of homes, sanitation services and trash collection. They say enforcing anti-camping codes criminalizes homelessness, and that the subjects of camp sweeps aren’t given true alternatives to sleeping where they’re not welcome. For many, their emotional health, disability or other problems prevent them from accepting commonly offered shelter at the city-owned Sam Jones Hall, advocates say.

There are not enough beds in local shelters, even if everyone wanted one. Only 700 people — or less than half of the city’s homeless population — were in shelters during the February homeless count.

Volunteer advocates with Homeless Action and others are seeking a sanctioned camping or parking area where the unhoused can abide safely and without fear of arrest or harassment. It’s an idea that has some support from a minority on the City Council as a short-term measure until more housing can be built in a community with extreme need.

“We’re talking about a regulated, safe harbor place to stay until we can find appropriate shelter and housing options,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs, who supports creating a safe place for homeless people to camp.

But other elected officials and homeless service providers say that approach does not address the root problem. People in encampments, even sanctioned ones, are still homeless, Councilman Tom Schwedhelm said.

He and others say the city and the county already employ the most effective solution: personal counseling with homeless individuals to assess their unique needs and resources, and get as many as possible on a path to permanent housing.

Last year, the Housing First strategy forged by city, county and nonprofit leaders helped at least 651 people out of homelessness and into permanent housing, said Catholic Charities’ Holmes.

Increasingly, those efforts are focused on people living in large encampments through targeted outreach made in advance of camp disbandments.

But the persistent visibility of homeless people belies significant progress made behind the scenes to bring scores of vulnerable people off the streets and out of large camps, public officials said.

“They can’t see what we have done,” said Kelli Kuykendall, housing and community services manager for the city of Santa Rosa.

In Roseland, where a large homeless village was cleared in April, officials convinced roughly two-thirds — about 80 people — to accept help, though it was temporary for some, said Felicity Gasser, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. Twelve people moved into permanent housing and 37 remain at Sam Jones Hall, working on long-term housing, Gasser said.

A month later, when a successive encampment that sprang up on the Rodota trail was dispersed, 21 more people accepted shelter or housing, she said.

Outreach workers have transition plans for 38 households at Northpoint Corporate Center, while nine others have been moved to shelter in recent weeks and two have been moved to long-term housing, Holmes said. But it often takes repeated engagement and trust building to persuade people to make a change from what they’re accustomed to, she said.

Progress takes time, Mayor Chris Coursey said, because it ultimately requires the construction of more housing in a community with a long-standing shortage exacerbated by the October firestorm.

“The homeless issue is far from resolved in this city, in this county, in this state, in this nation,” Coursey said. “But I don’t think anybody should expect to see this issue resolved in the short term. We’re in this for the long term, and it’s going to take a lot to make a big difference here.”

Evictions challenged

The city and county approach to address recent encampments passed legal muster during a challenge in federal court last spring, when Homeless Action, a volunteer organization that advocates on behalf of homeless people, tried to stop evictions of encampments on county property in Roseland.

A federal judge refused to block the sweeps, saying local officials had provided adequate housing assistance to residents of the camp, as required under recent case law.

The judge’s rejection of a temporary restraining order also hinged on the fact that the site was being cleared in order to build badly needed housing, including 175 apartments, 75 of them designated for low-income renters.

But the lawsuit is still pending, and Homeless Action representatives say their argument remains.

“This is an untenable situation,” said one, Adrienne Lauby. “You’re moving people from one place to another. You’re saying you’re going to have services and shelter for them. There’s never enough.”

The dispute over what to do with those who remain outside continues to escalate, driven over the past year by successive sweeps that have ensnared some of the same individuals over and over again.

Most camps were cleared under Santa Rosa’s Homeless Encampment Assistance Pilot Program, adopted last year to address a large number of settlements posing problems around the city while working to get people into permanent housing. As part of the initiative, the city added 75 year-round beds at Sam Jones Hall for incoming camp residents, raising its capacity to 213 beds, and created three new positions to help locate more permanent housing.

Homeless Hill

The first target was an enduring community of people off Bennett Valley Road at the Farmers Lane extension in an area often called “Homeless Hill,” where some had survived more than a decade on a filthy, debris-strewn hillside.

Outreach workers met for several weeks with 40 to 50 residents of the encampment in advance of the August 2017 cleanup, finding long-term housing for two people and getting 30 of the remaining 42 people into emergency shelters or short-term motel stays.

But some who remained unsheltered soon joined a growing population staying under Highway 101 at Sixth Street downtown, where large numbers had taken refuge during the previous wet winter. The crowd there had continued to grow even before stragglers from Homeless Hill and areas burned by the October fires tipped the balance further so that the camp spilled into the street and into surrounding residential areas.

In November, city officials cleared the encampment, placing about 20 people in shelter.

Many of the others would soon join a 2-year-old encampment on county-owned property off Sebastopol Road near the Dollar Tree store known variously as Camp Michela, Last Chance Village or Remembrance Village. Its population peaked at around 140.

The eviction process was sufficiently contentious to spawn protests and the Homeless Action lawsuit, though the group’s legal move to block the eviction failed. The last 90 or so residents were moved from the site in April.

A flurry of new encampments rose and fell as a result.

Six weeks after the Roseland encampments were cleared, city police and county park rangers moved on about 100 campers who had congregated on the Joe Rodota Trail a short distance north of the Dollar Tree.

It included 60 or so from the Roseland village, according to Homeless Action. The trail camp removal was spurred in part by an assault on a bicycle commuter and two stabbings nearby.

About two dozen people who later settled a short distance down the trail at Roberts Road were forced out in June, including nine who were arrested for trespassing.

Some are now among the group at Northpoint Corporate Center, where a small number of RV dwellers stationed themselves years ago and managed to avoid public drama.

‘The rolling homeless’

The southwest Santa Rosa business park experienced an influx of newcomers beginning last winter, quickly drawing the concern of building owners and workers in the area, according to Keith Woods, president of the Northpoint Corporate Center Owner’s Association and chief executive of the North Bay Builders Exchange.

Woods, whose Apollo Way office overlooks the cluttered scene and what he calls “the rolling homeless,” said “a slowly growing problem” was “out of control” by this month. Police and homeless advocates counted more than 100 aging RVs, trailers and tents lining streets whose names once inspired space exploration: Challenger, Capricorn, Mercury and Apollo Way.

Two weeks ago, a city task force to address homeless encampments made the business park its top priority and has been working to identify a plan to clear it out.

A flurry of vehicle impoundments, police warnings and citations, and other activity in the area already has driven away at least a quarter of the homeless people to points unknown.

The owner of one vacant parcel installed a fence at the edge of the street, forcing some of the people camped on three sides of the property to move. Two men dispatched to collect trash and junk left behind filled their truck with debris, including a Styrofoam ice chest filled with human feces, though there’s still more work to do.

Given that so many people are in vehicles, it’s not clear how many occupants are veterans of the past year’s sweeps. But a few said they received donated trailers or an RV after the Roseland encampments were cleared, while others have shown up in their cars or on bikes.

But the writing has been on the wall with the heightened police presence and enforcement in recent weeks. The encampment began thinning out over the past two weeks, as people headed “here, there and everywhere,” according to Cynthia Curtis, who pulled away in her trailer as the fencing went up Aug. 9.

Another, Preston Boswell, 62, was among those forced to leave the Roseland encampment and who floated around for several months before arriving at Northpoint.

Boswell, whose hand and wrist injuries cost him his job as a journeyman painter and led to homelessness more than four years ago, was among those moved from the Roseland encampments last spring after a six-month stay. He moved around a bit before arriving at Northpoint with his three-legged shepherd, Odie, and a Ford Ranger piled with everything he owns.

He stayed there briefly before packing up his makeshift shelter and squeezing Odie into the front of the small pickup, worried the 2004 registration sticker on his car would cost him the only shelter he has.

Robin Hall, her face lined and swollen under hair dyed multiple shades of magenta, readily speaks of the burdens of homelessness: assaults, arrest threats, the difficulties of getting across town for a shower.

She said she can’t go to a shelter because of sleep disorders that cause her to kick and snore, likely waking up those around her, meaning she probably wouldn’t sleep well herself. “I’m a self-conscious person, and I would feel terrible,” she said.

Lately, she’s spent each day wondering when she should leave her current site on the asphalt at the edge of Challenger Way, where neighbors who can have slowly been departing, a few a day.

“They make it so hard,” Hall said, her frequent tears returning. “They shut down everything. Every place we go, they make us leave.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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