While Petaluma may be known as a vibrant "river town," drawing tourism and commerce around the Petaluma River and the historic downtown, there is another, darker side to the city's beloved waterway: the increasing number of homeless encampments that are perched on its banks.
After finding the bodies of two dead transients near the Petaluma River within the last month, police have stepped up efforts to monitor the mostly unseen areas beside the riverbed where homeless people and transients often set up camp.
"We're out there at least three times a week, trying to work with the homeless to get them connected to services," said Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons. "But it's a difficult balance because they are breaking the law by trespassing. We don't want to criminalize homelessness, but we have to do something."
Efforts to clean up homeless encampments along the Petaluma River have occurred on and off for several decades, with little effect. Today, rusted bicycles, rotting furniture, decomposing bed mattresses, and discarded clothing litter the riverbanks. Garbage can be seen every few feet, often protruding from the surface of the water.
Gallon jugs of urine and toilet paper covered in fecal matter can be seen from the bike path that curves its way through the tall grass in the area. Lyons said that he can't estimate the amount of money it would take to restore the area to its natural state.
"Things have gotten so bad down here that I can't even guess how much time and money it would take to fix it," he said. "But I can assure you it's a lot."
And while some homeless people staying along the river are peaceful and simply looking for a safe place to ride out tough times, others are there for illegal purposes, taking advantage of the relative seclusion.
Last weekend, officers were handing out notices at several homeless encampments along the river in the area behind Luckys Supermarket near Shasta Avenue. Officers cited four transients during the visit, three for drug possession and one for trespassing.
Among those cited was 22-year-old Chris Caston — a 2008 Casa Grande High school alumnus who graduated from the Santa Rosa Junior College with a degree in computers just five months ago but is now sleeping in a hammock made from from an old bed sheet tied between two trees near the river.
Caston, who couldn't find work after graduating from the SRJC, said he's still looking for a job as he motioned to a wire coat hanger dangling from a tree in his camp, draped with a freshly dry-cleaned suit.
"I'm ready to go on an interview and to get out of here whenever it happens," said Caston. But he admits that finding a job at this point may be difficult — especially since he hasn't showered or combed his hair recently.
Add to this a newly acquired police record for possession of drug paraphernalia and it means Caston is facing an uphill battle to get into the working world or back into permanent housing. For police, Caston's story is more evidence of the activities that go largely unnoticed along the river.
"We wind up using a lot of resources trying to fight crime on the river," said Lyons. "Back when I first came here in the 1990s, it was mostly people from Petaluma who had become homeless staying by the river. But now, it seems like more and more transients are coming in from out of the area to stay here. It definitely puts a strain on (the department's) resources."