The website for Sonoma County Regional Parks describes the Joe Rodota Trail as “an 8.5-mile paved, off-road trail linking downtown Santa Rosa and Sebastopol . . . a popular route for cyclists, walkers and runners.” But that bucolic description is sobered by this warning on the same website: “Joe Rodota Trail users are advised to use an alternate route between Stony Point Road and South Wright roads due to safety concerns caused by illegal encampments along that trail section.”
The warning about “illegal encampments” is also posted on the trail itself, and I’m pretty sure the regional parks’ staff is aware the encampments have expanded to the part of the trail between Stony Point Road and Dutton Avenue. After a recent excursion there, I noted there are now more than 140 tents and more than 170 campers, which is raising the concerns of homeowners and business owners near the trail and of people who cannot safely use the trail.
There’s no simple way to summarize competing viewpoints about using the trail for housing. Is housing more important than the right of citizens to use the trail as a park? Will laws against drug use and overnight camping on parklands be enforced? Who is responsible for the massive costs of cleanup for and “outreach” to people living on the trail? Where will the encampments spread to next?
To get a better understanding of the issues, I began making telephone calls with dismal results. Twice I called an executive at Catholic Charities, one of the major providers of outreach to homeless on the trail. No return call. Twice I called the Napa Police Homeless Outreach office. No return call. Twice I called a Sonoma County politician, using a phone number taken from a business card for that person. The call didn’t even ring through. I called and emailed a City of Santa Rosa councilmember. No response. Three times I called the Napa City Hall, where I was given three different names and numbers to call about homeless issues. I called all three. One telephone number was disconnected and the two persons didn’t return my calls.
It wasn’t all bad. I had a stunningly better experience when I called the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, where I spoke with Geoffrey Ross (executive director) and Janelle Wetzstein (communications liaison). They answered immediately and went out of their way on a late afternoon to give me information about housing outreach on the trail.
I believe I now understand where things stand: Based on legal developments, power has shifted from cities and counties—which thought they could clean up “illegal encampments” by sweeping out illegal campers—to the campers themselves.
One legal development is in Martin v. City of Boise, where a federal appeals court ruled that “criminalizing” homelessness, such as ticketing a trespasser or evicting them from an illegal camp, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection again cruel and unusual punishment. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Under this ruling, a city can’t take action against people for sleeping on public property unless the city has enough indoor, adequately-accessible shelter space for its entire homeless population. Some people call this a “right to camp” law.
A second legal development was announced in July last year. Parties to a homelessness lawsuit agreed to a preliminary injunction that defines under what circumstances police can cite or arrest a homeless individual for violation of City of Santa Rosa camping ordinances. Police must give reasonable notice, confirm the availability of a suitable shelter bed, and provide for storage of valuable personal belongings if removed while the individual is not present. The injunction does not restrict police from citing or arresting individuals for other violations of the law.
Just imagine the practical effect of these two legal developments. First, it makes it financially impossible for Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma to provide indoor, adequately-accessible shelter space for all of the homeless persons in the county, which number 3,000, according to the 2019 Sonoma County Point-in-Time survey. Second, “adequately-accessible” undoubtedly means handicapped-accessible, an expensive standard to meet. Third, how does a police officer determine whether personal belongings are “valuable” for purposes of storage? Will there be a major expense to provide secure storage?
And finally, many people believe cities must have the authority to tell people where they can and can’t sleep on public property, if only because where people sleep leads to costs associated with health and safety. Encampments often lead to a rise in crime and violence, including offenses related to drug and alcohol use.
Maybe the future experiences on the Joe Rodota Trail will be good. Certainly there’s a huge effort to provide outreach to folks on the trail. But for the darker side of homelessness, please view “Seattle Is Dying” on youtube.com.
One final note: Sonoma County has about twice the population of Marin County, but about three times the number of homeless. Sonoma County has about 3.6 times the population of Napa County, but about 8.5 times the number of homeless. Is that because there are many more services available in Sonoma County and many more public spaces such as parks, trails and freeway underpasses in which to camp? What could go wrong?
A native of Santa Rosa, Bob Andrews is a former pension trust officer at Exchange Bank, and was a long-time co-owner of a retirement plan administration firm. He's married with two children and three grandchildren and loves everything to do with wine. Contact him at email@example.com
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