Posted: December 5, 2019
The half-mile long, 150-person tent encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa is wet, muddy proof that our city and county homeless policies are failing a significant segment of the homeless population.
Whose failure it is depends upon the eyes that view it. Whether they are driving along Highway 12 at 65 mph, walking or cycling along the trail, living or running a business next to it or reading about it in the newspaper or on social media, individual viewers see the ramshackle linear camp through a different lens.
But they all see failure.
Failure of government. Failure of society. Failure of institutions. Failure of compassion. Failure of families. Failure of individuals. Failure of community.
Yes, the argument can be made that each and all of those — and more — share the blame. But pointing fingers doesn’t solve the problem, not even a little bit. And that’s what we should be talking about when we talk about the Joe Rodota Trail, or — as has become shorthand for the wider issue of homelessness in Sonoma County — the JRT.
First, let’s acknowledge that we aren’t going to actually “solve the problem” of homelessness, at least not soon. As a community, as local government, as individuals, we can’t quickly reverse the impacts of a global economy that is squeezing the middle class out of existence, a health-care system that can bankrupt faster than it heals, an opioid epidemic, a housing crisis, an inadequate mental-health system and all the other ills that bring us to a time when 3,000 people live without homes in Sonoma County.
But we can do better. We must do better. Even if it is just a little bit.
Which means it is time to do something different.
I served on the Santa Rosa City Council from 2014-2018, the last two years as mayor. I was deeply involved in homeless issues for most of that time, including working closely with city and county staff to develop the new Homeless Leadership Council that now is the primary decision-making body for funding homeless services and infrastructure in Sonoma County. We made improvements, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more.
The time has come for local government to create a place — and eventually multiple places — where people without homes can safely camp, or sleep in their cars, or pull up an RV or erect a small hut. Semi-rigid tent structures might be made available for those who need a place with heating and cooling. Water, restrooms and showers should be provided on-site.
The purpose of this place, or places, should not be a permanent home for those who camp there, but a stop on the way to a permanent home. Services and support need to be woven into the project, including social workers and health professionals and mental-health counselors and housing advocates. These will be not just encampments, but “navigation centers,” where the goal will be to chart a course to housing for every resident.
We should start relatively small — a few dozen people, say — and we should start on public property, with a partnership between the County of Sonoma and the City of Santa Rosa. The county owns land within city limits that could be used, at least temporarily, for a pilot project. Think of parking lots around the fairgrounds or the Veterans Building, or the old Sonoma County Water Agency property on West College Avenue, or the vacant parcel at the county Administration Center on the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Chanate Road. There are other possibilities, but these are close to transit and other services. Additional sites, including in other cities, may be needed. As the program grows, new sites should be dispersed enough so no one neighborhood is unfairly impacted.
Get non-profits involved. Community groups. Faith-based organizations. This should be a community effort to solve a community problem.
There are plenty of arguments for not doing this. Neighbors will object. Costs will be high. Moving people into tents and cars is not “Housing First” in some people’s minds — but it is better than the status quo.
And the alternative is what we see today on the JRT: Failure.
Let’s not forget:
-- The JRT’s neighbors also object to the linear encampment. The trail’s users — pedestrians and cyclists looking for recreation or an alternative commuting route — object. Neighbors throughout our community object to the ceding of our public commons to what amounts to a protest-by-trespassing.
-- The costs of doing nothing already are high. Police, firefighters, paramedics and ambulances are regular visitors to the JRT. Federal lawsuits have kept the billable hours piling up for almost two years in the legal offices at City Hall and the County Center. Public Works crews have removed tons of trash and washed away waste of all kinds from this encampment and the ones that preceded it, and without a change in policy when this one is swept away another one — another illegal one — will spring up to replace it.
-- Following the “Housing First” philosophy is not an excuse to do nothing. The people living now on the JRT are offered shelter on practically a daily basis. Some accept that offer, but many don’t want to go to a homeless shelter to sleep in a big room filled with cots. At an encampment, particularly one that acts as a navigation center, they can keep their privacy and their dignity while receiving services that help them on the path to a home of their own. That’s not happening for those who remain on the JRT.
Let’s also be clear: An encampment/navigation center will not solve the problem. There have been as many as 175 people camped on the JRT. Not all of them will want to move to an encampment that has rules they may not like, or fellow campers they may not be comfortable around. We may need to create multiple sites for specific populations, such as women and children, folks who are working to stay sober or veterans.
And still there will be those who will refuse help, refuse services, refuse to “come in” from the cold.
But we can help more of our community’s vulnerable residents than we are helping now. When it’s so easy to see that current policy doesn’t work, it’s time to change the policy.