A public comment at the Feb. 16 Sebastopol City Council meeting that complained of recent crimes against businesses on Morris Street raised questions about the homeless population who live out of their cars in Sebastopol’s eastern edge of town.
According to Katy Spyrka, a business woman who together with her husband owns two businesses on Morris Street, included links to videos of suspicious activity, such as unknown individuals attempting to break into work vehicles. Spyrka wrote an email included with the meeting attachments that said the business has had to install security cameras and install extra security features on the vehicles.
“I used to be able to work at the warehouse and feel safe,” Spyrka wrote. “Over the last 18 months, during the day we have had strangers wander into our warehouse looking for someone supposedly. They are actually scoping out our materials. There
are random people from the motor homes and drug addicts going around the area outside our warehouse. We have had people living in the vehicles in the parking lot.”
At the meeting, Interim Police Chief Donald Mort, who will be leaving his post shortly when the city brings on a permanent chief, said he had arranged a meeting with the commenter.
The discussion of homeless individuals living on Morris Street—a situation few Sebastopol residents are unfamiliar with—raised the questions about what the city can and can’t do to maintain safety and order.
Lt. Ron Nelson of the Sebastopol Police Department spoke to The Voice about the root causes of the situation, what the city and police department are doing in relation to the encampment, and what it might take to tackle homelessness in this country.
Nelson said that the most recent count showed 18 vehicles out of which homeless individuals are living on Morris Street. Per city ordinance, the vehicles are required to be moved every 72 hours, or else receive citations and ultimately get towed. As long as the cars are moved every three days, the owners are being lawful.
According to Nelson, it’s doubtful the homeless individuals on Morris Street are behind the crime brought up in the meeting, and also doubts that their presence makes the area a hotbed for crime as suggested. He said industrial areas such as Morris Street are generally more beholden to criminal activity than others.
Nelson called the business owners’ concerns valid, although he said there’s no evidence crime in the area is perpetrated by the individuals residing there, nor that crime is any higher on Morris Street than other parts of the city. While there are clearly problems with the situation, the city and police department are limited in what they can do to alleviate a bad situation.
Sebastopol Police are down on Morris Street daily, checking on the situation and making contact with those living there. Nelson said while the situation may be a nuisance and eye sore to some, the city is limited in what it can do for a few reasons. For one, permitting the homeless to park in an industrial area has its benefits.
“We also recognize that there’s not a lot of places they can go and we want to be empathetic of that. If they’re not there, they will filter into residential areas. This area is somewhat less impactful and not near schools,” Nelson said.
Similarly, on Morris Street, the city has been able to provide portable bathrooms and deal with any litter or other issues.
Nelson has been in law enforcement for nearly 30 years, began working for the Sebastopol Police Department last September. He began his career in Southern California, before joining the Santa Rosa Police Department in 1998, and said he has dealt frequently with Sonoma County’s burgeoning homeless population.
“You have a lot of people with mental health issues, and many of those people can’t function in what we would deem as normal society,” Nelson said. “Mental health is a huge problem not only in this community but nationwide. You have a lot of people who then start self-medicating.”
Added to that, Nelson said over the past decade, the California Legislature has decriminalized many laws—such as simple possession of drugs like methamphetamine and heroin as well as lower-level property crimes—which limits what police officers are able to do to prevent crime that may be associated with homelessness and drug addiction. Nelson said that for many criminals experiencing drug addiction or mental illness, arrest and incarceration—as severe as it may seem—served as an entry point for those looking for a way out of a criminal lifestyle.
“Previously, if you made an arrest, they’d be booked into jail and resources would be provided to them. There were more significant jail times, or in lieu of that they could get into treatment. Some of them took advantage of that opportunity,” Nelson said.
Nelson made the clear distinction that not all criminals are homeless, nor are all homeless criminals.
For a long-term solution to homelessness, Nelson said society would have to make a decision to provide solutions, which would likely require an increase in taxes to fund. Ultimately, providing more affordable housings and treatment for drug addiction and mental health problems will be necessary to end the crisis.