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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."

One such homeless person is Dean Rhoades, a 51-year-old homeless man originally from Castro Valley. Rhoades came to Petaluma after his son moved to town about two years ago.

"I was crashing on his couch for a while, but I couldn't keep that up," said Rhoades. "But fortunately for me, Petaluma is different than other cities I've been homeless in. It's more tolerant here. I understand everyone wants people like me gone, but I have nowhere to go."

Rhoades has been bouncing from spot to spot along the river for almost 18 months now, and will soon have to move again. When Lyons asked him about taking advantage of public services for homeless people in town — like the Committee on the Shelterless' well-known Mary Isaak Center — Rhoades pointed to his pit bull mix dog Angel tied to a nearby tree.

"I can't leave her," he said. "She's my family."

But it's more than that for Rhoades. He said that he went to COTS when he first came to town and was told he would have to wait at least three weeks to receive any sort of services. He also said that being along the river means he has freedom.

"I've done time (in prison) in the past," said Rhoades, who said he spent seven years in jail for charges related to multiple drunk driving convictions. "It's hard for all of us to follow the rules a place like (COTS) puts on you. I'm clean and sober now, so I could do it, but it's a lot just to get in there."

COTS CEO Mike Johnson said comments like Rhoades' break his heart.

"It's true," Johnson said. "All shelters have long waiting lists, including ours. We do active outreach to get folks into the system but it's a slow process."

And it's an even slower process for those who don't want help from such programs.

"I find the Mary Isaak Center helpful, but there's a lot of drama over there," said Caston, who was attacked over the weekend by another homeless person. "Sometimes it's just easier to hang out here, by yourself."

For the time being, Caston, Rhoades and others like them continue to seek out new spots to stay along the river, as officers keep trying to take them off the streets.

"We try to get them help, but a lot of times places are too full," said Lyons. "If that's the case, we try to get them to connect with their family. After that, we sometimes have to resort to law enforcement, but it's never our preferred method."

Meanwhile, at COTS, Johnson is leading efforts to find more permanent housing for residents. He says doing so would free up space at the Mary Isaak Center's temporary and transitional housing units, allowing COTS to take more people off the streets. Specifically, the nonprofit is trying to expand its permanent housing program — called Integrity Homes — in which unrelated adults share a rental home in order better to afford general living expenses. Johnson hopes to increase the number of Integrity Homes in Petaluma from the current nine to 50 over the next five years.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)