Homeless camps on the rise in RP
Garbage, not violence, proves to be biggest issue on RP creek trails
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By Mira Brody  July 4, 2014 12:00 am

Eleven homeless camps were recently discovered during a sweep along Hinebaugh Creek, and since their initial discovery, the Rohnert Park Dept. of Public Safety personnel have been attempting to discard camps and help the residents who rely on the camps for their shelter.

The sweep was prompted by a higher-than-usual volume of complaints about trash along the well-used creek path and required four officers on bike and foot to clear out the campers, giving them notice beforehand as well as information on local resources that could help them.

“These are people that are in need in our city,” council member Jake Mackenzie commented during a city council meeting in which staff commended public safety for prompt and professional actions along the creek. “They aren’t supposed to be living there, but they do exist, and they do need our help.”

Although all homeless, the needs of the transients are varied. Some have simply fallen on hard times and have to regain financial stability, while others require psychological and substance abuse resources.

“Some people lose their jobs and are just trying to get back on their feet,” says RPDPS Sgt. Aaron Johnson, who led the creek patrol. “We’re definitely empathetic: you can’t just tell people ‘go get a job,’ but we also have 40,000 residents that we serve, and if they want to take a walk on the creek, they don’t want to be pestered for money.”

Although there are always safety concerns in homeless camps residing in public areas, the main issue patrollers found was the trash and waste the camps accumulated, which diverts efforts from the city’s public works department away from the community they serve. After a bout of rain, debris will clog creek aqueducts and quickly become an unsanitary environment.

“If you were walking and found somebody unkempt or intoxicated, would you feel comfortable jogging past them? You want your kids to be able to ride in front of you and not catch sight of these camps,” explains Johnson. “Most of these people aren’t that aggressive, but it’s more of a public perception.”

A couple of disturbing incidents occurred along the path of Copeland Creek in April. The first was on April 17 when a man emerged from a Copeland Creek trail and began shooting at several people gathered in the parking lot at Rancho Cotate High School. There were no injuries in that incident.

Nine days later, however, a man reported being stabbed in the abdomen while walking the trail between Commerce Boulevard and Seed Farm Drive. It is unknown if the suspects are among the homeless.

Aside from cleaning the creek for resident use, the sweep was very focused on encouraging those individuals to seek help. Many simply move on to other cities, but some are Sonoma County residents in need of alternative housing; resources such as Olympia House Rehab facility or Integrity Housing, an organization who visited city hall just a month ago with the hope of expanding their support to Rohnert Park.

Johnson notes he has in fact noticed an increase in homeless activity in Rohnert Park lately, and although many are motivated to point fingers toward Graton Resort and Casino, it seems more likely a rough economy is the cause.

“Anytime you have more people, is it usually economy related,” says Johnson. “Most of the people we’re dealing with have a Sonoma County history.”

He also fears that many transients who use the railroad tracks as a guide to move north or south between cities will soon become victims of impending train activity. He says Rohnert Park has become complacent to the lack of rail traffic, where it will soon become a reality.

Regardless of where they take shelter or how they navigate, it is clear the county has a homeless problem that requires immediate rectification, not only for the comfort of those who use the creek paths for recreation, but also to provide those who are in need with a proper roof and resources to live a qualitative life.

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