Hordes of rats scurried from the cracks along Santa Rosa’s Sixth Street highway underpass as public works crews blasted the sidewalk at the city’s most visible homeless encampment with a high-pressure water hose.
Volunteers worked alongside them to clear the grimy, urine-soaked stretch, collecting buckets of trash and human waste left behind by 30 to 40 people who moved their belongings aside for the weekly cleanup.
As the sidewalks dried, the squatters returned, bringing a tattered patchwork of tents and blankets that has grown since they began occupying the Highway 101 underpass a year ago.
“I like it here,” said David Sjoberg, 38, as he heaved a mass of bike parts and other possessions onto the curb. “It’s the only way I know how to live freely.”
But the squalid encampment within blocks of homeless services and touristy Railroad Square could soon be coming to an end. City officials are planning to close the area to overnight camping next month and move the transients into temporary shelters.
It will be the second such effort in Santa Rosa since August, when the city — which has an estimated 1,900 homeless people — disbanded a trash and vermin-infested haunt off Farmers Lane on the western edge of Bennett Valley. About 70 percent of those on Homeless Hill have since received housing and none have returned, officials said.
Now the city is turning its attention to Sixth Street, which is drawing complaints from neighbors tired of running the gauntlet of blocked sidewalks and bad smells.
Mayor Chris Coursey said the city can’t continue to allow it to exist or let homeless people live in such unhealthy, unsafe conditions.
“We’re not throwing anyone out into the cold,” Coursey said. “We’re going in there and offering services and shelter to everyone.”
Details of the planned closure, which city officials hope to complete by Nov. 1, will be discussed at 6 p.m. Thursday in a public meeting at the De Turk Round Barn.
Homeless rights advocates assailed the city’s approach, accusing officials of evicting homeless people from one spot, only to have them move to another. Gregory Fearon, a member of Homeless Action, a Santa Rosa activist group, said the city has failed to provide a permanent housing solution despite spending more than $2 million a year on the problem.
“This whole whack-a-mole thing isn’t working,” Fearon said.
Activists decrying a lack of portable toilets for transients descended on Tuesday’s City Council meeting, toting bottles filled with yellow liquid they said represented urine. Many called for the establishment of city-sanctioned camps. The move came as Santa Cruz, San Diego and Los Angeles deal with hepatitis outbreaks in large homeless camps.
“You keep using phrases like clearing out and cleaning out like these people are trash,” one activist, Adrian Shader, told the council. “They are human beings.”
Although the city’s homeless population is down, it has become more conspicuous over the past few years because of several factors.
Cleanup projects have forced many homeless people from hidden campgrounds at creeks, in storm drains and along the Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit tracks. Also, recent development of vacant land has sent transients in search of new places.