By Angela Hart
SANTA ROSA, California. – You knew the neighborhood was going to revolt.
It was early May, and officials in this northern California city, known for its farm-to-table food culture and pumped-up house prices, were desperately discussing how to stop Covid-19 from infiltrating the homeless camps that are in the the area's famous parks and trails. For years the numbers of homeless people had crept down in Santa Rosa and the verdant hills and valleys of Sonoma County – and then increased, exacerbated by three punishing forest fire seasons that destroyed thousands of homes in four years.
Apparently overnight, the city's homelessness crisis had come into view. And with the onset of Covid, it posed a devastating health threat to the hundreds of people living in shelters, tents and shelters, as well as the service providers and rescue workers trying to help them.
In the past few weeks, as covid made its first foray into California, Governor Gavin Newsom had urged cities and counties to convince hotel operators to open their doors to people on the streets whose age and health made them vulnerable. But in Santa Rosa, a city that thrives on tourist dollars, city guides knew they would never find enough owners to volunteer their facilities. Councilor Tom Schwedhelm, who was serving as mayor at the time, decided to pitch dozens of tents in the parking lot of a shiny community center in an affluent neighborhood called Finley Park, a few miles west of Santa Rosa's central business district.
The neighborhood residents were not interested in welcoming the homeless into their enclave of tree-lined streets and sleepy cul-de-sacs. In a short space of time, letters were sent to thousands of residents and businesses informing them of the city's plans to erect 70 tents that could accommodate up to 140 people at the Finley Community Center. This neighborhood gem draws numerous families and fitness enthusiasts to picnic areas, sparkling pools, and tennis courts.
The backlash was fierce. Santa Rosa officials defended their plans for three hours on a Thursday evening in mid-May when hundreds of residents flooded phone lines to register their discontent.
"Will there be a list of everyone who has decided to do this to us and our park in case we want to vote them out?" a resident barked.
"This is a family district," raged another.
"How can we feel safe in our park?" others pleaded.
In Santa Rosa, as in so many other communities, strenuous objection in the neighborhood would typically result in a proposal for homeless shelters and services. Not this time. Elected officials did not ask; they told. The project would move forward.
"Go ahead and vote me out," said Schwedhelm, and talked about his way of thinking at the time. “You want to yell at me and get angry? Go straight ahead. It is important that the government listen, but in reality these are our neighbors. So let's help them. "
Within a few days, the spacious parking lot in the Finley Community Center was cordoned off with a green chain link fence. There were 68 blue tents 12 feet apart, each equipped with sleeping bags and a storage bin. A neat row of portable toilets lined one side of the camp, with hand-washing stations and mists throughout for the summer heat.
The city hired Santa Rosa Catholic charities to manage the camp, and the social workers fanned out to the city shelters and unapproved camps, where they found dozens of customers. The first dozen residents were in their tents four days after the site was approved, and the population quickly grew to nearly 70. In return for accommodation, showers and three meals a day, the residents of the camp agreed to a 8 p.m. Curfew and a contract that pledges to meet mask and physical distance requirements and act as good neighbors.
The tent city of Santa Rosa opened on May 18th. And not too long after that, something remarkable happened. Finley Park residents stopped protesting and donated goods – food, clothing, hand sanitizer. The tennis and pickleball courts, which were popular with retirees in the afternoons, were bustling again. Parents and children crowded again in the nearby playground.
And in this towering green perimeter, people began to bring their lives together.
From May through November, Santa Rosa spent $ 680,000 on servicing and managing the site. This was a six month experiment that would set a new course for the city's approach to homeless services. As cities across California grapple with a homelessness crisis that has been condemned internationally, the Santa Rosa experience suggests a way forward. Rather than having months of crippling discussions with neighbors before committing to a housing or conservation project, city officials decided that their job was to lead and inform. They would identify and drive project locations and use neighborhood feedback to adjust improvements to a plan – but not to kill it.
It was a turning point in action that would reverberate in Sonoma County.
"We know we upset a lot of people – they get up and say," Hell no! "Said County Supervisor James Gore, president of the California State Association of Counties." But we can't just go on saying no. That was the failed housing policy of the past 30 to 40 years. Everyone wants a solution, but they don't want to see this solution in their neighborhood. "
"Death by a Thousand Cuts"
About a quarter of the country's homeless live in California. Almost 160,000 people live in cars, on loaned sofas, in emergency shelters or on the streets. The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis for a number of reasons, including job losses and prison releases, as well as new capacity limits in homeless shelters.
From Los Angeles to Fresno to San Francisco and Sacramento, the homeless camps have multiplied. And with no toilets or trash cans, unauthorized warehouses have become magnets for neighborhood complaints about shabby, unsanitary conditions. That leads to regular law enforcement operations destroying one camp only to see it rise elsewhere.
The California capital provides a telling example of the dynamism. An estimated 6,000 people are homeless in Sacramento. This population has become more visible since Covid brought office life to a standstill. Tents and tarpaulins populate the motorway underpasses in the entire grid of the city center, accompanied by heaps of rubbish and clutter.
The Mayor, Darrell Steinberg, is known as an advocate for homelessness. During his years in the state parliament, he implemented measures that exponentially increased resources to combat homelessness and mental illness. But in more than four years as mayor, he has endeavored to build muscle through coherent policies to get people off the streets and into supportive homes.
"The problem with our approach," Steinberg said earlier this year, "is that every time we try to build a project, there is neighborhood controversy." Our own constituents say, "Solve it, but please don't solve it here." In the end we experience death through a thousand cuts. "
As turmoil builds in the community, he leads the indictment for a new initiative to build a continuum of city-sanctioned housing, including triage shelters, sanctioned campsites, and permanent housing with social services. The city initially allocated up to $ 1 million for tiny homes and safe tents, but as of March there was only agreement on one place: a parking lot under a busy freeway, where the city will install toilets and hand-washing stations where they allow up to 150 people to set up a camp.
Donta Williams, homeless for the past five years, shakes her head at how long it took the city to sanction a campsite. Hailing from the South Sacramento neighborhood he considers his home, Williams has settled in a number of filthy lots that regularly pack up and move from one to the next in response to law enforcement.
"We have nowhere to go," said Williams, 40, a plaintiff in a lawsuit with the city over Lagerfeger. “We need living space. We need services like bathrooms and hand washing stations. Or how about a couple of dumpsters so we can collect the trash? "
A real job, a new beginning
Like Sacramento, Sonoma County has been fighting unruly homeless camps for years. Before the fires, the crisis was more hidden: people sheltered in stream beds and wooded valleys that met hiking and cycling trails. The forest fires of 2017, 2019 and 2020 brought many from the hinterland. And the 5,300 homes that were decimated by flames meant more people were displaced.
Sonoma County politicians described their soul searching on breaking the parish deadlock when it comes to finding locations to provide housing and services.
"It's fear and anger that if you build this enclosure you will take something away from me – that's a big part of it, and I've seen that anger directed at me too," said Shirlee Zane, a supporter of homeless services who lost their re-election offer last year after 12 years on the district's supervisory board. "It's a psychology that we see too often here, a sense of legitimacy from middle-class white people."
In developing the Finley Park model, those responsible at Santa Rosa relied on a few basic principles. Neighbors were concerned about crime and drug use, so the city deployed police and security guards to patrol around the clock. Neighbors worry about garbage and illness; The city brought hand washing stations, showers and toilets. Catholic charities took dozens of campers on beautification projects in the neighborhood, giving them gift cards to stores like Target and Starbucks in exchange for picking up trash – usually $ 50 for a few hours of work.
A mobile clinic operated the camp several times a week, distributing basic health care and medication. Residents had access to virtual mental health treatment and were regularly screened for covid symptoms. During the 256 days that the site was up, only one person tested positive for the coronavirus.
"We were serious about access to care," said Jennifer Ammons, a nurse who ran the mobile clinic. "You can get them inhalers, treat their cellulite with antibiotics, get rid of their pneumonia or skin infections."
Rosa Newman was among those who changed her life. Newman, 56, said she fell into homelessness and addiction after leaving an abusive partner years ago. She moved to her designated tent in September and, within days, was accepted into the California version of Medicaid, which was linked to a doctor and being treated for a painful cystitis. After two months in the camp, she was able to move into subsidized housing and got a job in a homeless shelter run by the Catholic charity.
"Before I was so sick that I had no hope. I didn't have to show up for anything," she said. "But now I have a real job and it's just the beginning."
James Carver, 50, who slept in the doorway of a downtown Santa Rosa store with his wife for years, said he was lucky to have just a tent over his head. Carver said his morale gradually improved by putting his energy into cleanup projects and doing odd jobs around the warehouse.
"It's such a comfort; I'm looking for work again," said Carver, an unemployed construction worker, in November as he cleaned up stacks of storage bags that were distributed to the residents of the camp. "I don't have to sleep with one eye open."
Jennielynn Holmes, who heads homeless services for Catholic charities in Northern California, said the Finley Park experiment helped in ways she did not expect.
"This has taught us valuable lessons on how to protect the vulnerable population, but we have also been able to enroll people for health care and get them ready for housing faster because we knew where they are," said Holmes. Of the 208 people who have served on the site, 12 have moved to permanent apartments and nearly five dozen have been placed in temporary shelters while they await opening.
When Santa Rosa officials were designing the Finley site, they temporarily sold it to the community, believing Covid would run its course by winter. And although Covid was still raging, they kept that promise and closed the site on November 30th. Then they held a community meeting to get feedback. "Only three or four people called and they all had positive things to say," said David Gouin, who has since retired as director of housing and community service.
Several local residents said they changed their minds about the project because of the way the website was managed.
"I was amazed I never saw anything negative," said Boyd Edwards, who plays pickleball at the Finley Community Center a few times a week.
“I thought they would get loud and have crap all over the place. Now you can have it all year round, as far as I'm interested, ”said his friend Joseph Gernhardt.
Of the 108 calls to the police, almost all of them responded to other homeless people who wanted to sleep on the premises when it was full, records show. And there was no violent behavior, said police chief Rainer Navarro.
With the closure of Finley camp, Santa Rosa has expanded its main accommodation and has plans to set up year-round managed camps in multiple neighborhoods, this time with hardened structures. Meanwhile, the county regulators are using $ 16 million in government grants to buy two hotels and convert them into apartments. They got their way to break through two Finley Park-style camps, one on the county property, the other in a mountain retreat.
It is time to end the debate and find solutions.
"We have properties that sell for $ 20 million and then you walk past people sleeping in tents with no access to hot food or running water," said Lynda Hopkins, chairman of the county board of directors. "These tiny villages – they're not perfect, but we're trying to create some dignity."
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.
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