Overpasses double as Santa Rosa homeless camps, riling neighbors

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The growing number of homeless people seeking shelter under Santa Rosa’s highway overpasses this winter has upset residents in surrounding downtown neighborhoods and created a touchy enforcement dilemma for local police.

The complaints, raised by neighbors in online forums this month, have focused attention on the Highway 101 overpasses at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets, where unsanctioned encampments have grown as the rainy, cold weather set in. Homeless people gather there night and day, their belongings, including shopping carts and cardboard structures, often spilling off the sidewalk into the street.

Neighbors say the problem is worse than in any previous year, and that they feel their concerns about safety and quality of life are falling on deaf ears at the city.

“It’s like a living hell what we’re going through right now,” said Catherine Dale, who lives just east of the freeway downtown.

Dale and her family have lived for five years in a neat Victorian home just north of the Catholic Charities intake center at 600 Morgan Street. During that time, her cars have been keyed, her bushes ripped out and her teenage daughter harassed. Now, the crowds congregating under highway overpass at Sixth Street make the sidewalks impassable.

“Kids can’t walk to their bus stop,” said Dale, the 54-year-old owner of a property management company who works from home. “My dad’s in a wheelchair, and we can’t go to a restaurant in Railroad Square.”

Dale, who recently voiced her concerns on the neighborhood social media site NextDoor, ticked off a litany of laws she says are being routinely broken, including camping, loitering, littering, urinating and defecating in public, and blocking public access. Police used to enforce such issues but not anymore, she said.

“Now we’re literally being told ‘We’re not doing anything,’” Dale said of her conversations with police. “We’re told to call the traffic division, but they haven’t returned a call in a week.”

In response to the high number of complaints, the Santa Rosa Police Department took to Facebook this week to try to explain its policy and to discourage residents from using the overpasses as drop-off zones for homeless aid.

“We always try to balance public safety with compassion,” police officials wrote.

In an effort to strike that balance, officers are not rousting people from under the sheltered spots during inclement weather out of a concern for their welfare, Lt. Ray Navarro said.

“If it’s wet and raining, we don’t want to be pushing people out into the exposed elements,” Navarro said.

But when large amounts of debris accumulates, forcing people to walk in the street, that creates a safety issue officers will act on, Navarro said. During clear weather, officers have on several occasions gone through the areas with public works crews and, after giving people time to gather their belongings, have cleaned out the areas, Navarro said.

The department is asking people not to drop off goods at the overcrossings because often the items aren’t getting to the people who really need them. It’s better to make such donations to a service provider like Catholic Charities, Navarro said.

This allows donations to be paired with the services that can help resolve the root cause of a person’s homelessness, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

“It’s not just about getting them warm at that moment,” Holmes said. “It’s about getting them a home for a lifetime.”

Holmes and Navarro both said they understand and appreciate the concerns of neighbors.

But the nasty winter weather has simply forced people to seek shelter where they would not otherwise, Holmes said. Her organization, which operates an emergency warming center when temperatures dip below 38 degrees, has opened the center more often this year than any previous year.

“I’ve never seen the weather so cold and so rainy for such a long period of time,” Holmes said.

Rainfall so far this year is 150 percent of average, and overnight lows are regularly dipping into the 20s.

That’s one of the reasons the city sought to expand the Community Housing Assistance Programs to allow private groups like churches to host safe camping programs on their properties. To date those efforts have been stymied, largely by neighbors concerned about the same impacts Dale describes in her area.

Dale said residents of the St. Rose and West End neighborhoods are planning to attend the Jan. 10 City Council meeting to demand greater enforcement of existing laws.

No one wants people pushed out in the cold and rain, Dale said. But doing nothing isn’t an option, either, she said.

“By the police not moving these people along, they’re encouraging people to basically live there,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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