Santa Rosa opens homeless encampment during COVID-19

Santa Rosa, already struggling with a homeless crisis, has opened a sanctioned camp in response to COVID-19. 

The goal is to give people on the street someplace to stay that's sanitary and provides social distance. 

Already, the city has moved some people from its main homeless shelter into motels.

The camp targets those on the streets.   

"I feel safe wherever I go, I honestly believe if the Lord wants me, he'll take me, " said James, 68, one of the first to arrive at the Finley Community Center.  

Seventy tents are arranged on the parking lot, with restrooms, showers, and hand-washing stations nearby. 

Fear of infection did not bring James to the camp.

He's tired of being on the move and wants some decent sleep. 

And he is wary about the camp being too strict and says he will leave if it is. 

"A lot of stuff they're setting up the homeless is more like a prison than anything else, so I'll see how this works."

CDC guidelines recommend leaving homeless folks alone, because it's riskier to roust them. 

But the sprawl of makeshift tents and huts has taken over many Santa Rosa sidewalks.       

"If you look at our encampments in our downtown area, folks are very dense," said Dave Gouin, the Director of Housing and Community Services.  "It's head to head, sleeping bag to sleeping bag."

The camp is the first Santa Rosa has sponsored, and came together quickly, nudged by the pandemic. 

Campers get three meals a day.

They can leave for essential outings but have an 8 p.m. curfew. 

Pets and possessions are allowed; drugs and alcohol are not.

Outreach workers are contacting people, coaxing them to come.     

"Letting them know it's okay to take a chance and come here and be safe in this camp rather than under the freeway or in our parks where it's not managed at all," said Gouin.  

Some neighbors in the West College Avenue area nearest the camp have misgivings. 

"I'm not saying all of them are dangerous, but some are," said Hector Garcia, whose family has had previous encounters with homeless people in the creek and park close to them. 

Garcia complains the community had no input on the camp until after it was already decided.

Neighbors are bracing for problems: drug use, break-ins, erratic behavior.   

"We're all talking about it and we're preparing, making sure everyone has each other's numbers and we're ready."

Camp administrators note there is round-the-clock security and professional staff on site. 

"This is unprecedented work for our community, the first of its kind," said Jennielynn Holmes, Program Director for Catholic Charities. 

Holmes insists the camp benefits public health by keeping potential spread in check.      

"Everything that is recommended for us to do, from hand-washing to keeping distance, is virtually impossible for someone living outdoors on their own," she said. 

She is also apprehensive about new waves of homelessness resulting from the pandemic's economic fallout.    

"This is only the beginning of the crisis, the crisis is still to come."

James was philosophical about long-term solutions, both before and after COVID-19.

"You ain't gonna help three-quarters of these people until you help with their addiction," he said. 

And he downplays his personal risk of contracting the virus. 

"Honest to God, I believe most of it's political, the mouse has turned into an elephant, right?"  

On the first day, the camp had 10 people move in.  

Masks are required, and everyone has their temperature taken on entry, and are regularly checked for symptoms. 

The camp is also an opportunity to connect un-sheltered people with services for addiction and mental health, as needed. 

"With the unnatural situation of COVID-19, we all ought to be open to alternatives and be able to give everyone a chance to test these new ideas," said Gouin. 

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU