SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KTVU) - The city of Santa Rosa has declared a homelessness state of emergency, making the issue top priority and streamlining action.
"It's all hands on deck, it's boots on the ground," declared council member Ernesto Olivares, before the unanimous vote Tuesday night.
City leaders say it is more than a symbolic act, because it allows them to relax zoning and land use regulations to shelter people on public and private land.
Advocates applauded the vote.
"We need safe camping and safe parking," said Heidi Prottas of the Sonoma County Task Force on Homelessness.
"A place to put your stuff, not just your head," she added, "and they know what they need, so listen when they tell you."
Estimates put the Sonoma County homeless population at about 3,000.
Existing shelter beds accommodate about 1,000.
That leaves approximately 2,000 people "unsheltered", sleeping in cars, doorways, creek beds and parks.
Leaders decided to treat the situation as they would people displaced by a flood or fire, and call an emergency.
"It's hard to make sound decisions when you're living in survival mode," KaLane Raposa told KTVU, reacting to the possibility of more services for homeless persons like himself.
The twin declarations, state of emergency and shelter crisis, pave the way for more encampments like the one Raposa has lived in for several months.
A community of tents behind a cyclone fence is clustered behind a strip mall.
There are more than a dozen de-facto camps across Santa Rosa.
"We live as a community, we cook, we have a pantry here, open to all the residents of the camp," explained Raposa.
The camp is technically illegal, but sanctioned by the city and county.
With security, power, and water, it's high-end homelessness.
"There's a long waiting list to get in her, so as people move on or move into permanent housing, we go down the waiting list," Raposa elaborated.
The safety and stability of the camp will allow Raposa to move forward, into a hotel room and out of homelessness.
"It was the result of this camp that I was able to go through the programs I've gone through to find stable housing," Raposa said gratefully, "and there are plenty of empty spaces and buildings they can do this in."
Advocates say the shelter crisis is rooted in a "housing" crisis.
"You have to have first month, last month, security deposit," Josh Hammond told KTVU, as he ate dinner at Santa Rosa's largest shelter.
Like most of Sonoma County's homeless, Hammond did not move from somewhere else.
"I've lived here all my life. I'm 34 years old and I've never had an apartment," he explained.
"I've worked pretty often, at times had a regular income, but it was still never enough."
A handful of other cities including Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, have also declared states of emergency to cope with burgeoning homeless populations.
"Since we don't know what the solutions are yet, let's remove as many barriers as we can," said Santa Rosa's Vice-Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who led city committee studying the issue.
The declarations don't have money attached, but Santa Rosa has already doubled its spending on homelessness, and will build thousands of affordable housing units in the next few years.
"I speak almost daily with business owners concerned about homeless issues," Schwedhelm told KTVU.
He notes downtown redevelopment is underway, including a new pedestrian-friendly square, which will become a homeless haven, unless remedies are found.
"What does the city of Santa Rosa want to be known for?," posed Schwedhelm, " not as a hub of homelessness, but a community that cares about its residents and is coming up with some comprehensive strategies to deal with the situation."
In addition to the emergency declaration, Santa Rosa will also send a letter to Governor Brown, asking him to declare a statewide homelessness emergency, something he has declined to do. California has more than 100,000 homeless people, about one-fifth of the nation's homeless population.