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Joe Rodota Trail sign
Joe Rodota Trail sign advises public to use alternate route between Stony Point and South Wright roads due to encampment. Informing that The County of Sonoma is coordinating efforts to address the encampments with outreach assessment for shelter and housing resources. Photo: Screenshot - SRJC Digital Filmmaking-Non-fiction media produced by students in SRJC's Journalism class-youtube.com/watch?v=71WA9X3utow

Addressing the Homeless
on the Joe Rodota Trail

We earmarked $2M to stand up two “outdoor shelters” —
an alternative location to camp which would have running water,
sanitation facilities, electricity, and wraparound services. 

Jan 2, 2020
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County

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Of the three years I’ve been in office, more than 90% of my time has been spent under a local disaster declaration. We’ve faced down flood, fire, flood, and fire — with some corporation-caused power shutoffs and school lockdowns thrown in for good measure. (At the County offices, we joke that we’re still waiting for the locusts and the plague... and then we laugh nervously, and then we knock on wood.)

I’m not sorry to see 2019 in the rearview mirror. It was a tough year for many of our communities, and many of my friends and family members struggled as well. 

2019 ended, as it began, with a declared local emergency.   But the final emergency was different than the others: it was a humankind, manmade disaster.  In December, the County of Sonoma declared a state of emergency due to the 200+ person encampment on the   Joe Rodota Trail .(JRT).

I have been pushing the County of Sonoma to address the deteriorating situation on the JRT for months. In fact, I’d requested that the encampment be agendized for public discussion by the Board of Supervisors in mid-October, and was urging staff to come up with creative solutions to address the growing crisis — but then the Kincade Fire hit, and staff was forced to turn their attention to emergency operations, sheltering, and short-term fire recovery.

So here we are, in 2020, with more than 200 people camped along a public trail inside the city limits of Santa Rosa. The City of Santa Rosa is now broken into political districts, just the way the County is, but we don’t yet have any locally elected representatives for the area of southwestern Santa Rosa that includes the JRT, so I have been meeting with Mayor Tom Schwedhelm to discuss solutions.

A view of the encampment.  Photo: Screenshot- SRJC Digital Filmmaking-Non-fiction media produced by students in SRJC's Journalism class-youtube.com/watch?v=71WA9X3utow

We ask ourselves the multi-billion-dollar question throughout   California, which is home to one out of four of the 550,000 homeless people living in the United States.  That question is: how do we end homelessness? And more immediately, what do we do about the JRT?

Some residents have suggested that we should simply arrest all of the homeless people. I do not agree with criminalizing homelessness. Arresting people is the wrong answer to unaffordable housing, poverty, low wages, inadequate healthcare, mental illness, and addiction, which are just some of the causes of homelessness in Sonoma County. In addition to that, criminalizing homelessness is a bad use of taxpayer dollars. Jail is one of the most expensive forms of housing we have in Sonoma County. As   Sheriff Essick  told me at a recent meeting, jail costs nearly $200/day per inmate. Oh, and the jail is full. (So, if you want to suggest arresting homeless people for vagrancy, you should be prepared to advise on who you’re going to let out of jail in order to let them in.)

Finally, it’s actually now illegal to arrest people for living on public property unless they have been provided with an alternative place to go.   And while we are working on it every day, we currently don’t have alternatives identified for each of the 200+ residents camped on the JRT. The County of Sonoma is under a court injunction dictating how we can address encampments; we are also held to the outcome of a legal case in Boise. Both of these court cases mandate offering solutions prior to closing down encampments.

You know what’s criminal? Crime,   and it should be treated as such. Law enforcement should absolutely address those making a living selling illegal drugs; people engaged in human or sex trafficking; thieves and anyone perpetrating violent acts. Whether someone is homeless or housed, they should be arrested for these crimes. Unfortunately, the JRT has become a magnet for crime — and in many instances, it’s the homeless residents themselves being preyed on by criminals who see them as an easy target. Some of the people living on the JRT sleep during the day because they are too afraid to sleep at night.

It’s clear to everyone that the JRT is not a good place for people to live. The current situation is unacceptable for the unhoused residents who are living in inhumane conditions, for the residents living in houses nearby, and for the cyclists and pedestrians who would like to have an open trail to commute on. It’s a disgrace and a symptom of governmental failure at all levels — from the feds, who fail to provide an adequate number of housing vouchers and fail to offer an adequate mental healthcare safety net; to the state, which has not yet committed to an ongoing funding source to allow local government to meaningfully address homelessness; to the local level, where we have failed to build adequate affordable housing for our residents. 

So what DO we do?  In December, the Board of Supervisors approved funding for an $11M suite of solutions to address the JRT. We invested $4M in coordinated care for JRT residents, which includes 15 detox and residential treatment beds for addiction. We earmarked $2M to stand up two “outdoor shelters” — an alternative location to camp which would have running water, sanitation facilities, electricity, and wraparound services. We are also adding master leases of apartments to provide permanent supportive housing, and purchasing six houses which will serve as “congregate housing” (meaning people will share a house, but have their own bedroom). 

Will these solutions be enough? Absolutely not. Will they be fast enough? No. Are they expensive?   Yes — until you look at the completely unacceptable alternative. But I will continue to fight for solutions, and continue to fight for their speedy implementation. 

It’s time to get people off the trail, and into a better place to call home. In fact, it’s well past time.

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