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With Homeless Camps Resurgent Across Santa Rosa, City Prepares to Open One of its Own

From left, Eric Nelson, Kelsey Kirton and Michael Silvato shelter-in-place at their encampment under Highway 101 at College Ave., Friday, May 15, 2020 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

By Will Shmitt
May 18, 2020 —

It’s taken a pandemic to do it, but Santa Rosa this month is slated to dramatically ramp up its response to the local homelessness crisis by opening its first-ever managed homeless encampment to protect at-risk homeless people from the coronavirus.

The move comes as COVID-19 remains a persistent local health threat — reaching 373 confirmed cases Saturday — and with unsanctioned homeless encampments resurgent across Santa Rosa, as scores of tents and makeshift shelters have taken over sidewalks on Highway 101 underpasses and downtown parking lots from Third Street to College Avenue.

Some of those same campers were cleared in late January from a sprawling homeless camp strung out along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa. But the new collection of camps, including the growing cluster lining the College Avenue underpass, may be here to stay — the result of court-imposed limits on homeless enforcement in the city and federal health guidelines that discourage clearing campsites to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19.

Local officials plan to ask those campers to relocate, and the new sanctioned site outside the Finley Community Center in northwest Santa Rosa will be able to accommodate up to 140 people, with intake starting Monday.

But any relocation can’t be mandated, at least not any time soon, and city officials acknowledge they’re working on the fly as the pandemic forces them to accelerate their response. As is, officials’ embrace of the Finley site reverses years if not decades of opposition inside City Hall to any kind of managed homeless camp.

“Ending homelessness is really easy: housing. But how to get there, that’s the challenging part,” Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said Thursday night at an online community meeting hosted by the city. “And there is no framework for any other community that’s had to deal with COVID-19. We’re creating this as we go.”

The Finley site is set to remain in operation until the county health officer lifts the now-indefinite shelter-at-home order. Already, it has stoked concerns among neighbors of the community center off West College Avenue.

“Being on the west side feels like a dumping ground sometimes,” said resident Judy Ervice during the city’s Thursday meeting. “Given that most of the homeless centers and resources are on the west side, we have more homeless problems … and we just got over the Joe Rodota Trail, which was traumatic.”

Calls for service related to homelessness were below average in April, the first full month of shelter-in-place, according to Santa Rosa Police Department data. In fact, April’s call volume was the lowest it’s been since November and December, when the Joe Rodota Trail encampment was fully entrenched and growing.

The city’s Police Department has sought to align its approach with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on homelessness amid the pandemic. Officers continue to enforce the law at homeless camps, said Capt. John Cregan, with the exception of anti-camping rules that would call for breaking up settlements, he said Thursday at the online meeting.

“If we see this disease spreading more quickly through the homeless population, that’s going to lead to surges at the local hospital,” Cregan said. “That affects not just that very vulnerable community in our city, but it affects everyone else in the city, so we have to work together to think collectively about what’s best for our city as a whole.”

Converging crises fuel response

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, the two largest local governments, have each declared formal emergencies over homelessness. In Santa Rosa’s case, the pronouncement came nearly four years ago. The 2017 fires and soaring housing costs are among a mix of factors that have deepened the crisis, driving local governments collectively to spend millions of dollars more on services and housing efforts. The county’s one-time outlay to disband the Joe Rodota Trail camp and relocate its residents topped $12 million. The city’s regular spending on homelessness has more than doubled since 2017, to $3.4 million.

Several months before the 2017 fires, Santa Rosa adopted an approach that favored disbanding homeless camps, and authorities did just that in several spots until running into a federal court challenge in 2018. A judge’s resulting order last year has limited enforcement ever since. The months-long disbandment of the 250-person camp on the Rodota trail was an aftereffect of that new legal reality, with final orders given only after replacement shelter existed for most campers.

And now the pandemic has complicated matters further. Both the city and county have honed in on their homeless populations because of their vulnerability in the emergency. Those without regular access to shelter often have pre-existing health conditions and they endure close-quarters living situations with less sanitary resources, all of which make them more susceptible to a variety of contagious diseases, public health experts say.

No testing at camps

At the Redwood Gospel Mission, which is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, a homeless man attempts to get comfortable to sleep, Friday, May 15, 2020 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

So far, local officials have reported no COVID-19 outbreaks among the county’s homeless population of nearly 3,000. About two-thirds of those residents regularly make use of local shelters, according to the most recent homeless census in January 2019.

But while the county in early April launched a program to test residents and staff of local homeless shelters, no testing has been conducted among the unsanctioned camps that line local streets and parkways.

A county spokesman acknowledged the lack of such testing last week, clarifying a misstatement Tuesday by Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, who had said that county testing extended to both shelters and encampments. Mase on Wednesday corrected herself, indicating that people living on the street have been resistant to testing and saying she would support testing among unsheltered populations — though it’s unclear how quickly the county will move to do so.

“I think we just had some challenges in reaching out to that population for testing, setting up testing and going out and doing that,” Mase said. “I agree, they’re a vulnerable population. … Definitely, we should try to get those folks tested.”

Reserving rooms to reduce risk

The city has relocated a total of 77 people who were staying at its Sam Jones Hall shelter or in known encampments into rooms at the Sandman Hotel off Cleveland Avenue, while Sonoma County has covered temporary housing for at least 47 at-risk homeless people resettled into student dorms at Sonoma State University.

Twenty people have been housed in 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers provided by the state and set up at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The county also continues to sustain the 60-space Los Guilicos Village camp in Oakmont, which is nearly at capacity.

The moves amount to a new level of attention and spending to combat chronic homelessness, said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. But the emergency steps should be seen as temporary measures and as part of a longer-term plan to place more of the county’s homeless residents into permanent housing, she said.

“We shouldn’t be too smug about the fact that we haven’t fixed the problem long term,” Zane said.

County officials voiced hope that homeless people who have turned down testing — whether due to lack of symptoms, disinterest, or distrust of government — will eventually consent. Officials are most concerned about camps with turnover and those residents who patronize essential businesses, according to county spokesman Rohish Lal.

Nikki Edwards, originally from Nebraska, lives in one of several encampments that have popped up under Highway 101 in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Public health nurses are slated to fan out into encampments across the region to conduct coronavirus swabbing, he said, though there’s no set timeline for that to happen. The county also plans to hand out free cloth masks, hygiene kits and socks, he said.

Outreach workers at Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the largest local homelessness services provider, have been bringing symptomatic people in for testing, as they would for people exhibiting signs of other illnesses, said Jennielynn Holmes, the organization’s chief program officer.

No positive results for coronavirus have been found in that outreach or at Sam Jones, the city-owned shelter overseen by Catholic Charities, she said.

Holmes acknowledged that the pandemic has fundamentally altered the shape of local efforts to house homeless people. Whether the political will and funding exists to sustain such efforts remains to be seen, she said.

“We’re in unprecedented times, and unprecedented times call for unprecedented action in many ways to respond to the crisis and the situation in front of us,” Holmes said.

Homelessness expected to rise

The challenge is not confined to the Bay Area or California, though homelessness here has long been exacerbated by the state’s notorious housing woes. Amid the pandemic and an unprecedented spike in unemployment, homelessness nationwide could grow up to 45%, according to one study out of Columbia University. In California, the rise could be 20%, from 150,000 to 180,000, according to the analysis by Dan O’Flaherty, a professor who has studied the economics of homelessness for decades.

Some elected officials say the response must be equally swift and aggressive on the national stage.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has proposed creating 200,000 new federal housing vouchers and an additional 500,000 two-year vouchers for people who become homeless during the coronavirus pandemic. His bill also would add motel rooms, RVs and Airbnb units to the list of eligible dwellings where Section 8 vouchers can be used.

Huffman, whose district includes much of Sonoma County west of Santa Rosa, drove through the city a few weeks after the shelter-in-place order was imposed. He witnessed “a lot of people that are still living in close proximity to each other and in a very vulnerable condition.”

The city’s opening of a managed encampment, “accompanied by all of the services and bridges out of homelessness that are necessary,” could be a positive step, he said.

Tommy, who declined to give his last name, prepares to fill the gas tank of a motorized bicycle at his encampment on West Sixth Street under Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

“You don’t want to normalize encampments in public spaces. That’s not the answer to homelessness. But at the same time, you have a public health imperative right now that has to be addressed, and in some ways, providing that space and managing it is the only way to do it.”

At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has moved to block evictions for failure to make rent and mortgage payments. The state also has forged a deal with Motel 6 to place homeless people in rooms, though Sacramento has yet to negotiate any such motel contracts in Sonoma County, according to a spokesman for the governor’s office.

Site chosen without public say

Santa Rosa is covering the cost of relocating homeless people into 71 rooms at the Sandman, a step meant to increase their personal security while allowing for better social distancing at Sam Jones, which could accommodate up to 213 people in pre-pandemic times.

And then there’s the new 70-tent sanctioned camp taking shape in a parking lot at the Finley Community Center.

City officials chose the site while behind closed doors and before holding any public forums or decision-making event, surprising many residents and some of their county counterparts. The selection was made by City Hall staff, who ran it by a task force comprised of Mayor Schwedhelm and Councilman Dick Dowd, who backed the plan. The site, managed by Catholic Charities and set up last week, is expected to start accepting residents this week.

Santa Rosa officials, responding to questions and criticism about the site selection Thursday, said they were compelled to act amid converging crises. Staff members looked at other city-owned property, as well the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and Santa Rosa Junior College but opted for Finley because it was readily available and city-owned, said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services.

“It’s an emergency, and we’re moving as fast as we can,” Gouin said.

That urgency appeared to have outpaced communication with the county.

Mase, the health officer, wasn’t aware of the city’s encampment plan until asked about it by a Press Democrat reporter in a Wednesday briefing. And Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the community center as well as the former Joe Rodota Trail encampment site, said she found out about Santa Rosa’s plan from reading the newspaper. She noted that the Board of Supervisors met in public before moving forward with its Los Guilicos site.

“I wish that there had been a robust public conversation regarding what the different siting options were,” Hopkins said. She noted that she generally supports managed encampments as a short-term way to address homelessness.

“I think it is really critical to offer humane, real-time solutions, which is something we’ve struggled to do as local government,” she said.

City Hall embraces managed site

The Finley site represents a sea change for Santa Rosa, where officials have long resisted calls to establish any type of managed homeless camp. As the Joe Rodota Trail camp grew last year, city officers and firefighters responded to calls along the county pathway, but City Hall largely sat on the sidelines, leaving the relocation effort in the hands of county officials.

Homeless advocates at that time proposed setting up a sanctioned camp at the fairgrounds but county officials, including Zane, shot down that idea.

Without better communication between the city and the county, the homeless community will continue to suffer, said Miles Sarvis-Wilburn, co-founder of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, which proposed the fairgrounds plan in December.

“That lack of cohesion doesn’t translate into a smooth operation for them,” he said. “Many people get left behind, and many people aren’t interested in it.”

The Finley site is meant mostly to take in campers living under Highway 101 along Sixth Street as well as in the parking lots to the south. Most of the dwellings there involve some combination of tent and tarp, interspersed with vehicles and other more exposed situations. One setup last week resembled a small fort made of shopping carts and a couch, while an isolated campsite appeared to consist solely of a mattress and a comforter. Some overlap exists between those in the new clusters and the former settlement along the Joe Rodota Trail, according to Holmes with Catholic Charities.

Several people interviewed Thursday near the tents under Highway 101 said they were generally not worried about coming down with COVID-19. Few wore masks but some keep them on hand anyway as the stores they rely on for food and other supplies won’t let them in otherwise. Few said they had signed up for the Finley site.

“I think it’s damn near like another FEMA camp,” said Tommy, 39, who declined to share his last name as he added oil to a motorbike near his tent along Sixth Street. “But it gives us somewhere to go.”

In a parking lot to the south sat Nikki Edwards, who rummaged through belongings outside of her tent. She was looking for a purple pair of prescription sunglasses while trying to keep an eye on Miss Bailey, her friendly and curious heeler mix.

Edwards, a Nebraska native who lived for a time on the Joe Rodota Trail last year, called the coronavirus a “hoax,” but she said she’d felt the pandemic’s impact anyhow, as stores like Macy’s and Crossing the Jordan that she likes to frequent have been closed. Her ex-boyfriend’s sister, a beautician, is among the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as part of the vast economic shutdown.

Many of those people will confront the prospect if not reality of homelessness for the first time in their lives, she said.

“I just feel bad for them,” Edwards said. “They’re not used to being on the street.”

This article courtesy of The Press Democrat

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