Frustrated Santa Rosa residents pack into meeting to address homelessness

Once an asset, now an eyesore, the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa has become a flashpoint for homelessess. 

Friday evening, a few hundred people packed a community meeting, most of them denouncing the camp that lines the public path. 

"You guys have dropped the ball and you haven't done your job and I'm tired of paying my taxes when you don't do your job," shouted one man, as a microphone was passed among participants at the Roseland Library. 

His frustration is with city and county leaders, who have allowed the camp to mushroom from 20 to more than 200 people in recent months. 

Residents in the vicinity say the area is now dirty and dangerous, full of people with untreated addiction and mental illness.  

"I'm scared to walk in my neighborhood, not that homeless people are scary, but drugs are scary," said another resident who spoke.

The county supervisor who organized the meeting doesn't downplay the health and safety problems.   

"There are people in the camp with trench foot because they can't stay dry," Linda Hopkins told the crowd, "and I have constituents purchasing firearms and sleeping with them because they are afraid in their own homes." 

Some people in the audience held signs aloft reading, "Recall."

Hopkins is the target of a newly-launched recall, by critics who claim she hasn't done enough to stem the flow of campers on the trail. 

"There is so much frustration and anger but I really see that as an opportunity to drive change," Hopkins told KTVU. 

"My message is this is a huge symbol of government failure." 

Hopkins points to failure at every level of government, on the issue of homelessness. 

The Joe Rodota Trail is complicated by shared jurisdiction: Sonoma County owns it, but it lies within Santa Rosa city limits. 

A federal court ruling also restricts the ability to evict homeless people from public property unless they are offered somewhere else to go. 

"We just want a roof, and a door we can shut," said Nicholle Vanucci, a Santa Rosa native who said she has been camping near the trail for a few years. 

"I just want a piece of dirt, where police won't bother me for being homeless, and where my things are safe, that's all."

Sonoma County Supervisors have declared a state of emergency and allocated $12 million for solutions. 

They include new emergency shelters, dedicated space and counselors for detox, and moving people into apartments and houses. 

Three properties, each on the market for about $1 million, are being considered. 

All three homes have six or seven bedrooms, and communal living space. 

"Where do I sign up? I'd like a house," scoffed Roseland homeowner John George, who likens the idea to giving drugs to an addict.  

"If you give them a house it will be trashed in a month, because what's going to change? They have no accountability, no structure."

George complains his own home is losing value because of its proximity to the camp.

"I'll leave and they can have my house," he said sarcastically, "because right now I can't even rent it." 

Hopkins defends the home-buying idea, as a way to stabilize people, and help them work toward sobriety and self-sufficiency.  

"People will always push back, there is always going to be fear and concern but we all have to step up and do our part." 

Much of the meeting was spent in small groups, working with a facilitator, to identify priorities and explore remedies. 

That approach didn't work for everyone.  

"I came here to hear solutions from the people we elected, not to have them say, go sit around and talk and come up with solutions," said homeowner Michael Van Why, making his way to the door. 

But for Vanucci, having a seat at the table was inspiring. 

"I think this is amazing, all the sides are coming together, it's something, it's progress," she said. 

The audience came away with assurances: that county supervisors will select a location for a new emergency shelter on Tuesday, and that the sprawling camp along the Joe Rodota Trail will be cleared by the end of Janary, one way or another.