Gaye LeBaron: Sonoma County’s homeless problem an age-old dilemma

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We need a new word for “homeless.” In fact, we need a half dozen new words, because that word, originally an adjective, as in a “homeless man” has become a noun, and, heaven help us, it is a collective noun: “the homeless.”

Too often we toss it around like it applies to everyone who doesn’t have a roof over his or her head, or a bed to sleep in. But, in truth, it has a list of definitions almost as long as another collective noun we toss around like a Nerf ball: “community.”

At one end of this stretchable word “homeless” there might be a family of four, new in town to start mom or dad’s new job and thought they had enough upfront money for “first-and-last” rent but hadn’t realized what has happened to housing costs here.

Or, at the other end, someone like the poor soul my colleague Chris Smith wrote about last week who has lost her children and all hope to drugs. Or the 50-something man or woman, who looks 80, wandering the streets shouting curse words into the darkness, someone who would be in a government-run care facility — if we still had such a place.

And in between those three near-classic examples there are many more descriptions involving not only drugs, alcohol or untreated depression, but also a fierce dedication to independence. There are those who can’t imagine going to sleep anywhere without that old dog that has been with them since they both were pups, and who is their only family. And there are those who truly love to sleep “under the stars.”

All of those things we call “homelessness.”

And, while there are a lot of people working on it, there is not, in the foreseeable future, a clear path to a solution.

We are pretty sure why it is becoming a bigger and bigger problem — first, because our city and region, like the problem itself, are “becoming bigger and bigger” and because it costs more with every passing day to put roofs over our heads.

There is a quotation from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” engraved on the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., where America’s past is stored.

It reads: “What’s past is prologue.”

That means we’d best pay attention to what has already happened to better understand what’s happening in the here and now.

WE LOOK to our community’s past, hoping to find answers, or, at the very least, perspective.

The quest takes us to the old books in the county’s archives.

The arrest ledgers are a small part of the rooms full of records carefully stored in a 1940s building that was once the kitchen of the state’s Los Guilicos School for Delinquent Girls.

(We don’t use the word delinquent anymore except to describe unpaid property taxes, but that’s what they called kids who broke the law in those “good old days.”)

I went there last week with Katherine Rinehart, the county archivist and manager of the History Library in Santa Rosa, to thumb through the proof that the homeless, like the poor, have always been with us. Pick a year, any year. I chose 1894.

What I found were the names of people — men for the most part — arrested for “vagabondage,” “vagrancy by roaming,” for “sleeping in a boxcar,” for being “idle and dissolute,” for simply “begging” or “no visible means of support” or (try this one in today’s world) “vulgar and profane language in front of women and children.”

FAST FORWARD half a century and we find that 20th-century transportation gave Police Chief Dutch Flohr’s Santa Rosa — from the 1940s to the ’70s — a reputation as a “clean” town, free from such “crimes.”

But those who remember can attest — even while saying it made them proud citizens — that civil liberties were never an issue for Dutch, who was for many good reasons a hometown hero. He presented those picked up by police as “transients” (the chosen word of those times) the option of going north or south, and then bought them a bus ticket.

THERE ARE very sad stories to be found in our history books from the years of the Great Depression, when people who never dreamed they would be homeless found themselves walking the highways and riding the rails, getting out of the cities in the hope of finding work in fields or the forests.

There is a newspaper story from 1931 about what the writer called the “tramp population” along the Northwestern Pacific tracks. The count, the story said, had increased from 800 to 2,000 in a few months.

The population of the city in 1931 was less than 11,000 residents.

The men of the “tramp population” were also known variously as hobos, bindle-stiffs (for the bundles of clothing on sticks that they carried over their shoulders) or the most gracious name of them all — knights of the road.

Railroad agents were generally forgiving about the homeless, and throughout the 1930s the right-of-ways through Sonoma County had many encampments where men often shared food they had asked for and received from sympathetic housewives in adjoining neighborhoods, or had stolen from orchards and gardens and chicken coops along the way.

Santa Rosa had the largest “hobo jungle” because so many opportunities were nearby for all of the above.

The location was where the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad tracks from the west crossed the main Northwestern Pacific line at Sebastopol Avenue.

The P&SR owned a large warehouse there. It was generally empty except in the harvest season when it served as a fruit terminal.

Throughout the ’30s the loading dock, with an overhanging roof, was an inviting shelter and, for several years, the authorities turned a blind eye to the trespassers.

But when hobos began to use the wooden cross-bracing under the building to fuel their cooking fires, ripping it off as fast as railroad workers replaced it, law enforcement intervened.

Santa Rosa police officers began regular patrols, rousting the transients off the loading dock.

The hobos countered with evasive action, crawling far back under the old building out of sight, in wet weather.

According to police reports, there were several dozen homeless men — and a few women as well — sleeping under that shed one rainy winter night in 1939.

The warehouse above was filled to the ceiling with sacks of dried prunes, awaiting shipment. But too much of the bracing had been removed.

The building collapsed in a heap of fallen floors, beams and prune sacks, killing 11 people.

IT WAS a message from Steven Gelber, chairman of the history committee at the Museums of Sonoma County, that sent me to the archives, both the county’s and the ones at Sonoma State’s library.

He had leafed through a couple of these ledgers (1903 and 1911) that Rinehart brought to a museum panel discussion last month called “Lost Santa Rosa.”

Gelber, a retired history professor from Santa Clara University, said he was “struck by the fact that ... the problem would appear to be timeless; only the ‘solution’ has changed.

“They had one. We don’t.”

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