"Homeless Hill" to be cleared in Santa Rosa after 20 years

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A five-acre homeless camp, 20 years old, is being cleared in the North Bay, but not overnight.

For months, outreach workers have been visiting so called "Homeless Hill"in Santa Rosa, to coax people into shelter and services.

Monday, bulldozers and clean-up crews arrived, and the homeless were given time to pack and take what they wanted before the rest of the debris goes to dumpsters.

"I think you smelled it walking up here," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jon Wolf told KTVU, as he led the way into the camp.

Wolf was referring to the lack of sanitation, noting that health and safety issues made the camp a major priority.

"There were a lot of rats up here, we found some buckets of dead rats, human waste, needles," he added.

The camp is the largest of dozens in Santa Rosa, located on city-owned land near the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road.

The sprawling makeshift community dates to the 90's. Its size fluctuates, shrinking during the bitter winter months.

But at last count, there were 50 people spread among a tangle of trees and paths.

Neighbors including a church and synagogue on either side, plus homeowners  downhill, all expressed concern.

"They are able to hear the fights up here, people in the middle of the night," observed Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger. "Who knows what's going on?"

Some of the campsites knocked down this week featured multi-levels with decks, and  even stairs carved into the dirt. Thirty propane tanks were pulled out of the property.
"We found butane, gasoline, heating oils," Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal told KTVU, "and with the fire risk, we were lucky, but it wasn't a risk we could allow to continue."

Small fires have broken out, but none that got away.

Now the brush and trees will be thinned, to abate the fire hazard, and create visibility, so the hill can no longer be a hiding place for people who want to squat here again.

Amid the debris, beds, dressers, tables and desks, all adding to the hazard.

"If a fire did start up here, it's not only the vegetation, but these other fuels," cautioned Lowenthal, "and this is a fuel load that we didn't expect to see."

Now, the real work begins, with those persuaded to leave the hill and accept help.

"We've actually lowered our barriers for people who are willing to come in," Catholic Charities' Jennielynn Holmes told KTVU.

Outreach workers started approaching campers last month, promising that new shelter beds were waiting just for them, and that they could remain housed together and keep their pets with them.

"I liked it because the first thing I got to do was take a shower," 62 year old Terry Jenkins told KTVU, perched on his bunk at the Sam Jones Hall shelter in Santa Rosa.

Jenkins and his wife were the first to abandon the hill, and they had lived their the longest, beginning 18 years ago.

"Back then it was different, it was beautiful up there," recalled Jenkins, "and only about six people, and we all took care of the place."

The couple consider the shelter a stepping stone to permanent housing.

"The hill is tired, it's covered with all kinds of garbage," said Samantha Jenkins, "so it doesn't need any people on it anymore."

So far, 28 people who lived on the hill have accepted services.

The others made their way elsewhere.

Santa Rosa officials hope their comprehensive, team approach can work anywhere, if it works for a population as entrenched as this one.

"They've fallen through every safety net we have, and we're their last line of defense," declared Holmes, the Director of Shelter and Housing for Catholic Charities.

"We have to think about things differently, and not pass judgment on people trying to survive night to night, and instead say what can we do to solve it?"

Santa Rosa is boosting its homeless spending by another $500,000 to fund the extra shelter beds, plus staff and services to help transition people into permanent housing. 

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