Working together to expedite and attempt to resolve a pending federal lawsuit, the County of Sonoma, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission and the City of Santa Rosa have reached an agreement with Homeless Action! and three individuals experiencing homelessness for a preliminary and temporary injunction. The injunction defines under what circumstances Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County park rangers may cite or arrest individuals experiencing homelessness for violation of camping ordinances on public property within the City of Santa Rosa and establishes the protocols to be followed in connection with such enforcement efforts.
The lawsuit was filed following the April 2018 closure of the homeless encampment in Roseland and on the Joe Rodota Trail and has been pending for over a year. The plaintiffs allege that the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma, including the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, violated their constitutional rights in ordering the closure of the encampments. The County and City deny any wrongdoing and maintain that their actions were well within the law and necessary to address escalating health and safety concerns. Before closing the encampments, the County, Community Development Commission, and the City ensured that people received extensive notice of the planned closure, engaged in comprehensive outreach and assessment efforts to get people into shelter or supportive housing that would meet their needs, and undertook considerable efforts to store individuals’ property whenever feasible. Ultimately, the Roseland encampment was cleared so that the development of an affordable housing project on the property could move forward.
Recognizing these efforts, Federal Judge Vincent Chhabria denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the closure of the Roseland encampment, finding that the closure could move forward. However, the Judge permitted the plaintiffs to widen the scope of their lawsuit to challenge the Constitutionality of practices by the Santa Rosa Police as well as Sonoma County Regional Park rangers (in parks located within the city limits).
After months of negotiations between the judge and lawyers for all sides, the parties voluntarily agreed to enter into a temporary and preliminary injunction. The injunction serves as a pilot program that will remain in effect until June of 2020 and is subject to modification by the Judge. In cases in which an individual experiencing homelessness is to be cited or arrested for illegal camping on public property, the injunction requires police to give reasonable notice, confirm the availability of a suitable shelter bed and provide for storage of valuable personal belongings if removed while the individual is not present. The injunction does not affect enforcement of laws on private property nor does it restrict law enforcement officers from citing or arresting individuals experiencing homelessness for other violations of the law.
“This temporary agreement represents what can happen when all sides work toward compromise and common goals,” said Mayor Tom Schwedhelm. “Our approach, which is one we hope may serve as a model for other cities, is to balance what we view as two fundamentals – first, the status of homelessness is not a crime and those who are experiencing homelessness must be treated with dignity and respect; and second, that while a person’s status as homeless is not criminal in nature, one’s acts, conduct, and behavior if, in violation of the law, is not exempt from enforcement merely because one is experiencing homelessness.”
“While we must manage the safety and health issues presented by these encampments, the county and city take seriously our responsibility to address the shortage of affordable and supportive housing for our low-income and vulnerable residents,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair David Rabbitt. “Our 2019 Homeless Count shows that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County has declined by 2 percent during the past year and we remain committed to finding solutions that provide long-term relief to our most vulnerable populations.
The injunction is similar to settlement agreements and injunctions reached in cities throughout California, Oregon and Washington. The injunction does not apply to the Sonoma County Sheriff who was not named in the lawsuit. Nor does it apply to unincorporated areas outside the City of Santa Rosa or other communities in Sonoma County.
The preliminary injunction can be viewed at srcity.org/DocumentCenter/View/24895/Injunction_July2019.