PD Editorial: Homeless camps are a health, safety issue

Bicycle Dave collects his belongings as he and others clean up their homeless campsites at the Sixth Street underpass in Santa Rosa prior to city crews washing down the sidewalk and collecting trash, Wednesday Sept. 20, 2017. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017


In Sunday’s paper, Staff Writer Paul Payne sketched a disturbing picture of unsanitary conditions in the homeless encampment beneath Highway 101 near downtown Santa Rosa — rats, urine-soaked sidewalks, trash and human waste.

About three dozen street people pitch tents or sleep on the sidewalk, leaving periodically while city crews scour the pavement and cart away the rubbish.

This squalid camp is bad for the neighborhood. It’s bad for the people living there, too.

The city, which recently cleared the much larger Homeless Hill encampment above Bennett Valley, plans to close the Sixth Street underpass to overnight camping soon.

With winter approaching, and the prospect of more people congregating under the freeway, now is the time to shut the camp down.

The city can’t allow public spaces to be commandeered, and it must address complaints from residents of the St. Rose Historic District, Railroad Square and the West End neighborhood who have endured vandalism, public drunkenness, blocked sidewalks and other nuisances.

“It’s pretty gnarly,” Terri Noll, a West End resident, said. “And it’s unsanitary.”

Advocates for the homeless contend the city is only moving the problem from one location to another. That happened at times in the past. But city officials, and their allies in the social service sector, are diligently trying to connect homeless people with housing and other help.

Specially trained outreach teams are in the streets offering assistance. The city is expanding its homeless shelter and relaxing rules on sobriety and pets that have kept some potential recipients away. When the Homeless Hill camp was cleared in August, hotel vouchers were offered as an alternative to shelter beds. They’re available now as the city prepares to close the Sixth Street underpass to overnight camping. To try to break the cycle of homelessness, the city and Sonoma County adopted a “housing first” strategy that gives top priority to providing permanent housing, with social services such as addiction counseling or job training offered afterward.

The high cost of Bay Area housing is a substantial obstacle. So is the prevalence of mental illness among the homeless. There’s also the reluctance of some chronically homeless individuals to accept help.

“I like it here,” David Sjoberg, a resident of the Sixth Street encampment, told Payne. “It’s the only way I know how to live freely.” He can’t be forced into a shelter, but living freely isn’t justification for allowing an underpass to become a public health hazard.

San Diego started clearing homeless encampments this week as the worst U.S. outbreak of hepatitis A in almost 20 years continued unabated. Seventeen people have died and more than 450 have been sickened, most of them homeless individuals, according to health authorities, and the outbreak has spread to Los Angeles.

Sonoma County’s homeless population has declined almost 40 percent since 2011, in no small part because of an ongoing public investment in shelters and other services, including outreach efforts aimed at helping people living beneath the freeway and in other makeshift encampments.

If there is another wet winter ahead, finding enough space will be a challenge. But leaving large encampments in place isn’t an acceptable alternative.