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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
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Homeless Santa Rosans Win New Protections in Temporary Deal

Homeless campers in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa won new protections against forced removals and property seizures under a short-term deal approved Friday.

(CN) – Homeless campers in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa won new protections against forced removals and property seizures under a short-term deal approved Friday.

To temporarily resolve a federal lawsuit over homeless camp evictions, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County vowed not to remove people from encampments unless they are offered adequate shelter first. The agreement requires storing seized property up to 90 days, creating a process for filing complaints about shelter placements, and mandatory training for staff that interact with homeless people.

The agreement, which takes effect Aug. 11 and expires June 30, 2020, applies to all city and county-owned property within Santa Rosa city limits.

“What this means is that homeless folks who are on public property and need to be there because they have nowhere else to go will be given an offer of adequate shelter before they can be cited or arrested or moved," plaintiffs' attorney Jeffery Hoffman, of California Rural Legal Assistance, said by phone Friday.

Hoffman represents the organization Homeless Action! and three homeless individuals who sued the city and county in March 2018 to stop the eviction of a long-term camp in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

The camp was cleared the following month after U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria denied the group's motion for a temporary restraining order, finding the government vowed to offer campers housing placements prior to eviction.

Despite the camp's removal, the plaintiffs refused to drop claims of cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable seizure of property and violations of due process rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Both parties are awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on whether to review the Ninth Circuit's 2018 ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, which held governments cannot punish people for sleeping on public property if they lack adequate shelter alternatives. A Supreme Court review could change the legal landscape for Eight Amendment claims of cruel and unusual punishment.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said the agreement, which came after months of negotiations, "provides clarity on how we're going to deal with this challenging situation."

Speaking by phone, Schwedhelm stressed the short-term deal recognizes homelessness is not a crime while also acknowledging illegal conduct is not excused just because someone is experiencing homelessness. He said he hopes this approach serves as a model for other cities trying to balance respecting the rights of homeless residents with protecting public health and safety.

Under terms of the deal, the city must allow people to dispute whether an offer of shelter is adequate before an eviction. For example, a disabled person can contest whether an offered housing unit or shelter space adequately accommodates their special needs.

The agreement also requires the city maintain data on the number of people affected by each camp eviction, including arrests, citations, and voluntary relocations. It further mandates keeping records on the number of grievances filed and number of disabled-accessible accommodations requested, granted and denied.

"We feel the public should have a right to know that these procedures are being followed correctly," Hoffman said of the reporting requirements.

Sonoma County is home to nearly 3,000 homeless people, a number that declined 2% over the last year, according to the county's point-in-time survey conducted in January.

Statewide, California's homeless population of 129,972 decreased in 2018 by 1.2% after growing 14% between 2014 and 2018.

Santa Rosa's mayor said the city committed $1.3 million in this year's budget to help tackle homelessness. The city contracts with Catholic Charities to run its largest shelter and provide some social services to homeless residents. Sonoma County officials also approved $1.5 million to help with the purchase of the Gold Coin Hotel in Santa Rosa, which could become a new structure for permanent supportive housing within city limits.

"We have a housing-for-all commitment across the city," Mayor Schwedhelm said.

In approving the temporary settlement Friday, Judge Chhabria wrote the agreement "has the potential to serve as a model for resolution of similar disputes in other jurisdictions."

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