Dozens of speakers urged the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to address an encampment along a section of the 8.5-mile public Joe Rodota Trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
Property owners and business people wanted the encampment cleared from the paved trail that is popular with bicyclists and joggers. They said property values have decreased, there is litter, human waste and a pervasive smell near their property along the trail.
Advocates for people without homes said police sweeps are not the solution especially in the wake of an agreement between Sonoma County and Santa Rosa requiring outreach workers to offer adequate alternative shelter before the camp is cleared.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the public is frustrated because the encampment is in a public park and the trail is a public road.
"We need to find toilets and hot showers. This is a public health crisis and a safety and fire hazard," Zane said.
"There is a sanitation issue and the risk of spreading disease. It's inhumane," Zane said.
Former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter called for the county to open vacant county-owned buildings as shelters.
"We need toilets with water and garbage pick ups," Carpenter said.
"And don't talk down to the homeless. Talk to them and they will listen."
"We need a middle ground between sleeping in bushes or in $500,000 homes," one speaker said.
The late afternoon, three-hour discussion was on the Board's agenda as an update from the county's Community Development Commission and Sonoma County Regional Parks, which owns the trail.
The encampment is in the Roseland area of Santa Rosa and grew to 140 people over the past several months. Sixty-percent of the campers are men and the average age is around 40 years old.
Outreach workers from several agencies increased their presence in November and offered enhanced social services to the residents. As of this week, 60 people accepted services and shelter, including 40 people during the week of Oct. 27 because of the loss of homes and evacuations from the Kincade Fire.
Santa Rosa police continued to respond to issues on the trail, but outreach teams decided the best practice was to conduct outreach without law enforcement.
A cleanup by Sonoma County Regional Parks in early November removed 11 truckloads of debris and garbage from the trail and identified approximately 140 campsites containing 150 to 170 campers.
Parks officials have cautioned trail users to avoid the encampment if possible. The trail remains open along the Sebastopol Road section where the camp is located.
Some speakers told the supervisors they didn't have a problem with the campers.
"These people feel safe. That's why they're there. They are our community too," one man said.
Two speakers said they would be able to provide toilets and trash cans to the campers.
"If you've got toilets, bring them," Supervisor James Gore said.
Board Chair David Rabbitt said the county should consider building its own shelter if it could afford it and not rely on the city's shelter.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county must link arms with city of Santa Rosa staff.
"We need shared solutions," Hopkins said.
The board decided to direct their staff to come up with innovative solutions that will be discussed in December.
Kathleen Finigan, an activist for the unhoused, told the board, "Stop talking so much. Take action now!"