Petaluma police focus on Lynch Creek camps

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Mounting complaints about a large homeless encampment on the Lynch Creek Trail have prompted a cleanup operation along the brook that city officials expect will take weeks to complete.

On Friday, members of the Petaluma Police and the Public Works departments surveyed large segments of the trail on all-terrain vehicles, from the eastern confluence of the Petaluma River to Prince Park, Police Chief Ken Savano said in a press release last week.

Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons searched the area on a golf cart Friday afternoon to identify the encampment sites and where resources needed to be deployed.

“I’m just out here trying to get an idea of how big the problem is,” he said.

The reports about the most troublesome encampment, which is flanked by Turtle Creek and Sleepy Hollow lanes, range from alleged drug use and theft to illegal garbage dumping in the creek, Lyons said. It’s tucked behind dense tree cover in residential neighborhoods east of Sonoma Mountain Parkway.

After the department posts notices at the encampments, those taking refuge are given 72 hours to leave before police begin enforcement. Petaluma Police takes a service-oriented approach to abating transient sites, and usually return with representatives from organizations like COTS on follow-up visits.

“Our model has always been to try and provide financial, shelter, mental health, and substance abuse services first and enforcement second,” Savano said in the press release. “To address the underlying issues is much more effective for long-term problem solving than simple and multiple arrests.”

Public Works Department crews and the city’s local refuse hauler Recology are expected to handle the transportation and disposal of mountainous piles of trash that often collects at homeless encampments.

Public Works Director Dan St. John said he was concerned about the hazardous forms of waste accumulating, like used needles and sharps.

“Nothing is easy, and the collection of the debris and waste that accumulates can be dangerous,” he said.

The Lynch Creek Trail, a key piece of the city’s infrastructure as the crosstown pedestrian and bike trail, has become notorious for its growing homeless population in recent years, requiring similar cleanup efforts in the past, St. John said.

City officials estimate Petaluma’s unsheltered population is approximately 300, but police contend that number is even higher since the agency’s ongoing staffing shortage forced it to shut down the Homeless Outreach Services Team.

During an interview in November, Zilverio “Zeus” Rivera, one of the two officers that was pulled from the unit and placed back on patrol duty, said he and his partner Ryan DeBaeke had abated all 33 encampments throughout Petaluma.

Since HOST was disbanded last June when its $500,000 CalRecycle grant had run out, almost all of the camps have come back to life, Rivera said.

“Unfortunately the homeless issue is one of those challenges that if we’re not gaining ground on it, we’re losing ground on it,” he said in November. “The homeless population continues to grow.”

As the crisis escalates across the region, St. John said the city is exploring alternative sources of funding and the possibility of installing additional fencing at various sites along Lynch Creek to help curb the issue.

“We’re doing things that maybe the public haven’t seen before because we’re trying to match what we’re seeing with an appropriate level of response,” he said.

(Press Democrat reporter Andrew Beale contributed to this report. Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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