At tense town hall, Sonoma County announces plan to clear Santa Rosa homeless camp by end of month
At a tense town hall meeting Friday night, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins announced Sonoma County’s plan to clear the sprawling homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa by the end of the month.
In front of hundreds of county residents who came to Roseland Library to learn about the county’s plans, Hopkins called the trail a “symbol of failure,” saying that she and all other government officials had to take responsibility for the homeless crisis.
“We all have a part and piece of that failure,” Hopkins said. “We need to do more to address this encampment.”
The town hall came as county leaders have proposed a nearly $12 million suite of measures to address growing safety and sanitation concerns over the camp, which has increased to 220 people during the past several months. Among those measures is $5 million the county will use to buy six large, multibedroom homes - three of which already have been identified - to house up to 60 people currently living on the trail.
The county also has considered creating sanctioned encampments, and announced two possible locations just before Friday night’s town hall: the first on Administration Drive, next to the county courthouse; and the second at the Los Guilicos ?campus on Pythian Road, in the ?Oakmont neighborhood.
The crowd at the town hall was divided. Some were homeowners frustrated by the growing homeless population in their neighborhood; others were angry that people weren’t showing the community more compassion. A few came with signs that demanded Hopkins, who is up for reelection in March, be recalled from office, blaming her for a lack of action on the issue. Others, though, held up signs that said “Humanity & Compassion” and “We Rise By Lifting Others” to show their support for trail residents.
Facilitators of the town hall broke community members up into groups, asking them to discuss their thoughts about the trail with each other before sharing them with the rest of the room. Many expressed safety and sanitation concerns, citing the rodent infestation in the area, while others complained that the issue was lowering their property values.
“I can’t sleep at night,” said Julie Lumine, who lives behind the trail. Lumine, 65, said there are rats running throughout her apartment complex, and complained about the smell of campfires.
Some, though, countered homeowners’ frustrations with the fears of camp residents, stating that many felt dehumanized and criminalized for being homeless.
Nicholle Vannucci, 41, was one of just a few camp residents who came to the town hall. She said most just didn’t know about the meeting, but even if they had, she doubted they would have come.
“We’re judged every second for being homeless,” Vannucci said. “It’s rough. I’ve been hearing what people are saying. It hurts.”
While Hopkins thought the meeting was “very productive,” many in attendance were skeptical of the county’s proposals.
“There’s no way they’re going to get that whole trail cleared out by the end of the month,” said 66-year-old Jay Birks.
Birks, who lives one block off the trail, called the county’s proposals “Band-Aid” solutions.
He criticized the sanctioned encampments, adding that it wasn’t solving the problem, but “moving the problem somewhere else.”
Others supported the county’s plan but thought it still wasn’t enough to address the housing crisis. Kathleen Finigan, an activist and member of grassroots group Homeless Action, worried that the county was spending a few million dollars on homes that would only house a fraction of camp residents.
Hopkins and other county officials emphasized at the meeting that the trail would be cleared “in a way that’s humane, that is dignified,” though she said the logistics of moving residents were still being determined.
Barbie Robinson, the director of the county’s Department of Health Services who is set to become the interim executive director of the Community Development Commission after Geoffrey Ross stepped down earlier this week, said county staff are in the process of reaching out to everyone who lives on the trail to get each individual into some form of housing by the end of the month.
But camp residents and homeless advocates worried that there just wouldn’t be enough beds for everyone by Jan. 31.
“There’s no way this is going to be solved in two weeks,” Vannucci said. “I know that they will clear that trail by the end of the month, but we won’t have anywhere to go. And it’s scary. I have two weeks.”
As county officials spoke during the town hall and responded to residents’ questions or concerns, some in the crowd booed and heckled them. At one point, a man holding a “Recall” Hopkins sign stood up and yelled at the county supervisor, “You work for us,” accusing her of not doing her job.
County officials, though, responded to the criticism by reminding the crowd that addressing the homelessness crisis would take time and patience.
“I know that there’s anger and frustration in this room,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts during the meeting. “But I want you to know that I’m going to work hard for you, and the people in this room are going to work hard for you.”
You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.