A new camping ordinance is not going to end homelessness in Santa Rosa, but it can protect public spaces while creating an incentive for unhoused people to accept shelter.
That is, if the city backs up its rules with enforcement.
Santa Rosa should not arrest people solely for being homeless. In fact, the city cannot. A 2019 federal appeals court ruling says cities and counties in California and eight other western states cannot outlaw sleeping in public places unless space is available in a shelter.
However, the ruling does not allow people to sleep in any public space.
Santa Rosa operates a shelter, provides a parking lot for recreational vehicles and funds services for homeless individuals and families at a cost of $5 million a year. But there are not enough beds for everyone, and some people refuse offers of help.
The camping ordinance on Tuesday’s City Council agenda identifies specific places where unsheltered people cannot set up camp.
The list includes parks, streets, sidewalks, bike paths, bus shelters, near doorways, fire lanes and fire equipment, within 150 feet of a stream, within 100 feet of a school and areas where fire could spread quickly through trees or vegetation.
The ordinance also prohibits fires, unpermitted electrical connections, dumping dirty water, excessive noise, disturbing wildlife or vegetation, or damaging public property.
Violations could be charged as misdemeanors.
These are not onerous restrictions. Nor is Santa Rosa alone in seeking to balance the rights of homeless people with legitimate health and safety concerns about the proliferation of tents and makeshift structures in public places.
Rohnert Park recently updated its camping ordinance, and the Board of Supervisors enacted restrictions for unincorporated areas of the county. Many other jurisdictions, including San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego, have limited camping in public places.
“We know the community is tired of some of the negative aspects that have come from encampments,” said Councilman Chris Rogers, who represents downtown, which has a large population of homeless people. “And this is our attempt to address that within the limits of the law.”
A one-day census in 2022 counted 1,628 homeless people in Santa Rosa. This year’s point-in-time survey found a decline in homelessness countywide, though a breakdown for Santa Rosa and other communities has yet to be released.
By clearly stating where camping isn’t allowed and creating consequences, including the potential for arrest and jail time, the Santa Rosa ordinance would offer another tool for police and outreach workers trying to persuade homeless people to accept a shelter space or other assistance. Once they do, it may be easier to get unhoused people the help they need to find and keep a home.
But the city’s plan comes up short in one regard. Rohnert Park and the county opened sanctioned campsites while restricting camping in public places. San Diego took the same approach before launching a crackdown on camping in public places. Yet Santa Rosa has never followed up on its successful experiment with such a camp during the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Finding a site would inevitably mean overcoming neighborhood objections. But ensuring that there are safe, sanitary and supervised places for unsheltered people to camp would make it easier to enforce a camping ordinance and to defend it against any legal challenges.
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