Law enforcement leaders weigh in

What are the laws as regards to the homeless population? What is law enforcement’s role? What are the limitations?

We sat down with the police chiefs of Cloverdale (Chris Parker, acting), Healdsburg (Kevin Burke), Sebastopol (Jeff Weaver) and Windsor (Carlos Basurto), along with Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, to discover how law enforcement and the homeless population interact in the county.

All of them are very clear on what they can and cannot do, about the county’s homeless situation and all have hopes for bigger solutions in the future.

How big is the problem, really?

The answer to that question depends largely on who you ask. Weaver and Burke both feel that they’ve seen an increase in their local homeless populations, but Basurto and Parker less so. There are also issues with the designation of “homeless.”

“The county does have quite the homeless issue that needs to be looked at and worked on and dealt with but here in Windsor we don’t see a lot of homeless and we don’t get any complaints of encampments,” Basurto said. “Normally there are two or three homeless individuals in Windsor that we see regularly, one you see pretty much in the same spot every day, but there’s no trend here in Windsor like you’ve had other places.”

“We have our regulars, yeah, but if we see someone new come in maybe they’re here a week or month — they tend to get in trouble the longer they stay, and then they mosey back down to Santa Rosa or somewhere else usually,” Parker said. “We’re a small community and we know everybody here and we know who is supposed to be where.”

Parker added that out of 200-300 calls a week his department fields only two or three are usually about a homeless issue.

Healdsburg is seeing an increase. “In the time that I’ve been here, which is six years, we have always had a pretty healthy amount of our calls for services related to our homeless community, but I think I have seen a definite increase in the last few years,” Burke said.

Weaver has also seen an increase, and he has thoughts on why that is. “First, there is law enforcement pressure elsewhere” he said. “For example, the cleaning of the SMART train line displaced hundreds of homeless people. (Also,) the city of Santa Rosa has upped its enforcement team. They went from two officers and one part-time supervisor a year ago to six full time officers and one full time supervisor. That's seven officers dedicated to homeless issues, which results in more enforcement.

“The second piece is that there is a greater comfort level of being seen in the community (if you're homeless). At the chief’s meeting we had on July 6 we talked about how back in the day, the homeless lived in the shadows. They were rarely seen. Now in an era of a greater offering of services for alcohol, drugs and mental health, they’re coming out more,” he finished.

“The jail will say 30 percent of inmates identify as homeless, which could be,” Ravitch said. “There are homeless people living in the bushes right outside my office, behind the dumpster at the county justice center. I do think mental health issues and drugs are rampant in that population, but I also this it has gradations. There are people living in cars who can’t afford rent as opposed to people stumbling around drunk out of their minds, to people setting up encampments with their own set of rules to abide by. You can’t just say 'homeless' and expect that you are properly identifying people who are.”

“The number (of homeless) does include people who are sheltered, though not permanently,” agreed Weaver. “People who you could say are couch surfing or who have moved in with friends. While that number is important to know, those people are not in jeopardy of freezing to death or getting attacked.”

What kind of interactions occur?

Though law enforcement gets a lot of calls about the homeless in their community, the types of calls vary. Burke says Healdsburg gets a lot of calls for concerns over animal abuse, public intoxication or erratic behavior, all of which are potentially actionable, and a lot of calls for things that aren’t, such as digging through trash, panhandling or “occupying a public space” such as sitting on a bench for what is perceived to be too long a time.

Basurto says Windsor’s complaints mainly focus on littering, panhandling, public space occupation and utilization, and the general unkemptness of the homeless, none of which are illegal, though he says that if a violation is found, his officers take action.

Parker says the bulk of Cloverdale’s homeless calls revolve around, “trespassing, drunk in public, loitering, soliciting — some are aggressive when they do it, some are not, and some domestic violence, but not a whole lot.”

All of the chiefs also say they have a good working relationship with “the regulars” in their areas, but that even so there is generally an inherent distrust of uniformed officers.

“We definitely interact with the homeless community. With longer-term members, we have a reasonable working relationship. We've even tried to find housing for some. Some of these people are drug addicted to meth and heroin. We still enforce the law and hope to get them into treatment,” Weaver said.

“Our officers will regularly have a dialogue, approach homeless people, talk to them, and on a less formal basis to keep communication open, to find out if they’re new to the area, basically consensual, low key encounters with the officers that they initiate,” Burke said.

If you build it, will they come?

The theme heard again and again from law enforcement is that homelessness is not a law enforcement issue. Though they have a role, it is not a primary one.

“We all understand in this business that you can’t arrest yourself out of a homeless problem, that’s not going to happen,” Basurto said.

If law enforcement isn’t going to be able to provide long-term solutions, then what other avenues are there, and do they sometimes cause more problems than they solve? Here the answers vary, though law enforcement leaders agree the more (or less) services available, the more (or less) homeless you will attract — a reality that has some chiefs worried.

“There’s no services (here), they are limited,” said Parker. “We just don’t have any up here for them, no housing or anything, we do have a food pantry but as far as housing, a lot of them kind of pass through or they get stuck here as the last line in Sonoma County. They want to keep going north but they have problems doing that.

“They know there are not enough services here for them and they don’t like staying here,” Parker continued. “Sometimes an officer will buy a bus ticket, and we’ve referred people to the Wallace House when a bed opens up or directed them to the shelters in Santa Rosa. If there was a shelter here, there’d be a lot more homeless folks here.”

“We don’t have services offered in Windsor for the homeless like you have in Santa Rosa,” Basurto said. “Having talked to homeless people before, and my brother Rey Basurto who ran the Sheriff’s Office Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving Unit (COPPS) before they disbanded it, one of the things he said is that they come to Sonoma County because of the services available to them. There’s more services provided here than in other places.”

“(The new project in Sebastopol) will provide mental services, which is great. But there is a fine line,” Weaver said. “You know that line from the movie Field of Dreams? ‘If you build it, they will come.’ While I’m supportive of the efforts of the Village Mobile Park, I've been advocating they screen people carefully. Limit to Sebastopol homeless. If we become a premier destination for the homeless, we can’t absorb everyone from Guerneville. We have to have balance.”

Healdsburg has a partnership with several organizations, including Reach For Home and Catholic Charities and Burke is thankful to have those programs providing services to the Healdsburg homeless population. He doesn’t believe he has seen an increase in homeless people due to those services, and he sees them as the only path to a long-term solution.

“We will never arrest of ticket our way out of the problem, so I think that we help to the extent that we as a police department can. Because I think there are limitations to what a uniformed guy with a gun can do with the homeless issue,” Burke said. “We are a partner in it, but it’s going to be housing entities, nonprofits, in the city here, the housing director and the nonprofits we contract with to provide those kind of long term solutions.”

Is there a magic bullet?

“I think it’s no secret that mental health services are difficult to deliver to the homeless population, either because they don’t want it or because of the shortage of that resource here locally, so if I could wave any magic wand at all it would to bring those resources to the front line out here in the field,” Burke said. “To have more actually trained mental health professionals in the field interacting with the homeless community would sure be an enormous help. More residential rehab beds in our county would be another huge resource, too. But, I do think were making progress, the model that the city of Healdsburg has implemented in working with a nonprofit and having them working with us in trying to make these types of interventions successful is showing a lot of promise.”

“I think it’s a multi agency effort, I think housing needs to be at the top of the list of things available if you get somebody off the street and into a stable situation,” Ravitch said. “That person now has a sense of agency, of ownership, and then you can begin to tackle the other problems they have but you can’t expect somebody on a sidewalk to address the demons in their life. It’s easier to stay intoxicated. Give them a bed to sleep in, and you give them the road to success.”

“These are people, they’re no different than we are, other than they don’t have anywhere to live,” Basurto said. “I’ve spoken to some of them that are homeless because they want to be homeless — we can’t just assume that everybody has happened to fall on hard times. But the majority of them, I believe, would accept any assistance to get back on their feet and in a home if possible.”

Is there a solution?

This becomes a challenging question when viewed through the lens of law enforcement not being the appropriate agent of change. All of them are hopeful for a new Catholic Charities program that intercepts homeless people while still in custody to offer them services and assistance, to perhaps help the recidivism rate.

“We have a brand new program with Catholic Charities. They are cleared to go into the jail. We recently arrested a new homeless guy in town. He's been a huge problem. Even the other homeless people couldn't stand him. I called and said, 'Hey can you reach out to him?' Hopefully they can find a place for him to go. They link with the homeless population in jail to make sure they have a plan and place to go,” Weaver said.

Ravitch says she is heavily involved in solutions to the homeless issue, as are other county entities. There is a homeless court run by the traffic commission, and participants must be sponsored by a service agency like Catholic Charities.

“The homeless court will look at what an individual is doing to better themselves and forgive outstanding fines so they can get back on their feet,” Ravitch said. “It’s for people already connected to services. We would like to extend it to other avenues and it’s been a conversation with the superior court, but it’s a resource issue. We have a lot of therapeutic courts — veterans, drugs, domestic violence, DUI — and for sure some of the homeless come through those as well.”

Ravitch is also involved with the Family Justice Center, whose programs also reach into the homeless community.

“The premise of the FJC is: let’s look at all the services these clients need and put them in one spot so they don’t have to wander around,” she said. “What I think you need to do with the homeless problem is to look at all the places they might touch: a place to sleep, mental health, regular health services, human services for those eligible and different governmental agencies that can help with low income housing.

“You get all those people together and they work together and work with this population and get them to understand you’re there to help. It you look at the cost if you just arrest and prosecute — EMTs, police, prosecution, defense, cost of a jail bed — it’s cheaper to help them find a safe place to sleep and get the wrap-around services that they need,” she finished.

— Amie Windsor contributed to this article

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