Addressing Homelessness During the Public Health Emergency
During this public health emergency, the City of Santa Rosa has been working on several fronts to assist individuals experiencing homelessness, so as to protect this vulnerable population and the community at large from greater spread of COVID-19.
Those individuals at greatest risk of from COVID-19 — those age 65 and over or with underlying medical conditions — have been moved from shelters and encampments into hotel rooms or referred to the County’s Non-Congregate Shelter at Sonoma State University. For others at less risk from COVID-19, the City-owned Samuel L. Jones Hall Homeless Shelter has been reconfigured to ensure appropriate social-distancing accommodations for its residents. Additional social-distancing opportunities have been offered through the creation of the Safe Social Distancing Program, which has been set up temporarily at the Finley parking lot site. For those individuals who remain in encampments despite these opportunities, the City, in collaboration with the County, has provided access to sanitary facilities, facial masks and medical services, all in an effort to lower the risks of infection.
Actions to Resolve Encampments in Parks and the Public Right of Way
Despite the City’s efforts during this time, encampments in several areas of the City have grown increasingly in size and density. This has been of great concern to the City, and we understand that it is for many members of our community as well. The City has been monitoring these areas closely and working with its contracted outreach provider, Catholic Charities’ Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) to encourage individuals to relocate to the shelter options available to them, including Samuel L. Jones Hall Homeless Shelter, Safe Social Distancing Program, the Non-Congregate Shelter at SSU, and other sites.
While the City has encouraged individuals to voluntarily relocate to these safer situations, the City has not forcibly moved people, following the guidance of the Federal Centers for Disease Control, which generally advises against dispersing existing encampments to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The extreme conditions at several encampments, however, have now reached a tipping point, raising such serious public health concerns that the City believes that further action has become imperative.
This week, given the severity of the conditions created by encampments, the Santa Rosa Police Department began to take action to address the most serious sites. The first efforts were to address increasing health and safety concerns related to homeless encampments in Doyle Park and along Doyle Park Drive. In the area of Doyle Park, critical health, safety, and environmental issues were identified by the Police Department, Santa Rosa Fire Department, and the City’s Water Department necessitating removal and clean-up of the encampments. This project included vehicle abatement, enforcement of criminal activity including probation and Fish and Game violations, and mitigation of potential fire risks. Conditions in this location had created health and safety risks requiring immediate action. All actions taken by the City were designed to address the immediate public health and safety imperative within the overall context of the City’s ongoing efforts to stop the spread of the virus to every extent possible.
Similar conditions also call for immediate action at encampments located under the Highway 101 overpasses in the Downtown corridor and College Avenue, as well as at Corporate Center Parkway. Efforts to address the encampments in the Highway 101 overpasses will begin next week. Towing unregistered vehicles and addressing unsanitary conditions at Corporate Center Parkway and neighboring streets will follow soon thereafter.
Ensuring Those in Encampments Are Offered Available Services and Shelter
During all of these encampment resolution efforts, coordination of services and shelter is being offered by the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), including services and shelter at Samuel L. Jones Homeless Shelter, access to the Safe Social Distancing Program located in the parking lot at Finley Community Center, Non-Congregate Shelter at SSU, and other sites. Through the provision of shelter and service options, our goal is to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness have the opportunity to move into safer, more sanitary conditions, to ensure that they have access to needed health and social services, and to minimize the inadvertent relocation of individuals to other areas of the community without protection. As crowded encampments clear, a thorough cleaning will be undertaken at each site to protect the public health of the surrounding neighborhoods. The City’s Public Works Department coordinated the clean-up of Doyle Park and will do so for the other affected areas as well.
The Longer Term Plan
The SSDP at the Finley parking lot, hotel room accommodations, and Non-Congregate Shelter at SSU are all temporary measures aligned with the COVID-19 public health emergency, and City staff are planning for the eventual closure of those options. Longer term solutions must be established, and we are working in partnership with the County to explore and implement those solutions. We will keep the community informed of our efforts moving forward.