On Friday, Jan. 31, the county cleared the homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail. Sixty homeless campers went to a “sanctioned encampment” at Los Guilicos. Some accepted beds in local shelters. More than 100 people either refused what the county had offered or were somehow missed by county officials, but, under threat of arrest, they left the trail anyway, pitching their tents elsewhere around the county.
A few days before the trail was cleared, Sonoma West met with five members of the Facebook group Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, a homeless support network, which was created in last fall to help the homeless along the trail. The group, which now has more than 2,500 members, was started by two Sebastopol sisters, Rochelle and Jillian Roberts, and their friend Heather Jackson. (See “Sebastopol sisters reach out to the homeless along the Joe Rodota Trail,” Nov. 20, 2019.) We also spoke with Roberts after the trail was cleared.
At the first meeting, Roberts, Jackson and fellow homeless advocates Sunali Sikand, Lisa Aldana and Laura Smith sat around a dining room table in a home in the Jewell neighborhood of Sebastopol, sharing their experiences on the trail and their plans and concerns for the future.
A new role at Los Guilicos
Los Guilicos houses a significant portion of the folks who used to live on the trail in rows of white, box-like, temporary structures at the north end of the Sonoma Valley.
Roberts said Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, which for the last few months has handed out food along the trail, is now providing dinners at Los Guilicos. Forty members of their group stepped forward to help, as did 75 other people, many from the nearby neighborhood of Oakmont, a senior living community near Los Guilicos.
“We’re responsible for the dinners seven days a week,” Roberts said.
She said their group is now preparing meals using the St. Vincent de Paul’s commercial kitchen in Railroad Square, after a neighborhood group near the trail, Citizens for Action Now, turned them in to the health department for serving food to the homeless that was cooked in a home kitchen.
“There’s a lot of angry people out there that are just trying to stop everything that we’re doing,” Roberts said.
In true west county style, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness is planning to offer more than just food at Los Guilicos. They’re hoping to provide healing activities.
“We truly believe that there’s a healing process that needs to take place. These people, they need something before they’re ready for rehab, before they’re ready for services — there has to be this bridge of decompression in between,” Roberts said. “We’re doing what we can to help them with that. We’re hoping to do yoga up there and nature hikes, meditation and art therapy.”
To those who say the members of Sonoma County Acts of Kindness are coddling or enabling the homeless, Roberts has this to say: “We truly feel that we’re not contributing to the behavior or enabling it. We feel that we are building relationships to pull them out of that behavior.”
Roberts said she expected the physical safety provided by the new space would work its own kind of magic.
“Being in a warm place and having a door you can lock and walk away from, and an area where we could all sit down and have a meal as a community together, that’s really going to help.”
A transformational experience for the helpers and the helped
Everyone at the table agreed that people just coming out of homelessness need something deeper than just a warm place to sleep — though they need that too.
Jackson, one of the three founders of the group, said increased physical security was just part of the healing process.
“We build relationships with them. We just love them. I think that’s the key. Love. They’re just such amazing souls down there. The more we get to know them, the more that we get to know about their stories and their history, I just fall deeper and deeper in love with them,” Jackson said.
Roberts hoped this human factor was going make the Los Guilicos encampment different from other homeless solutions that have been tried in the past.
She said she felt the lack of human connection was one of the reasons so many of the homeless on the trail refused the offer of a bed at a shelter.
“They’ve told us that when they go into the shelters, they’re pretty much just a number,” Roberts said. “They don’t get individual-ized attention. A number of people have said that they just don’t really feel like the people there care about their well-being, or how they succeed or, you know, the steps that that person needs to succeed.”
Sikand also felt that a personal “heart connection” could make all the difference.
“To stop and to look into people’s eyes and to say you care and see them really know and feel that and feel like maybe they have somebody who’s an advocate for them is so much more powerful than something very sterilized, where you’re just a name a number,” Sikand said. “These people want to get activated so that they have a purpose and a place in the world, and it’s the same for all of us.”
Roberts said that many people in Sonoma County Acts of Kindness say that their involvement in the group has provided them with a sense of purpose and meaning that they hadn’t felt before.
“People tell me all the time, they used to be depressed, they really just didn’t ever do anything, and in this group, they wait for their time to chime in, and then they find their niche and they see something they can relate to and they jump in, and they’re just like ‘Thank you.’”
“By showing this much love to other human beings, they feel the love in return,” Jackson put in.
By now, the women were talking over one another in their eagerness to explain the ineffable.
“It’s more than just the trail,” Roberts started, but Aldana cut in, “It’s what community is supposed to be, in my opinion. This is how our world is supposed to be.”
Sikand continued, “Most of the people who come and give are not people who are flush. They’re not people who are sitting on a whole bunch of resources of time or material wealth. They’re giving from their hearts and they’re sharing, and for me that’s really beautiful. I mean I never thought I’d go down to a homeless encampment and find some of my best friends.”
The group exploded into laughter.
Where will their friends go now?
Roberts and the others were dreading the actual removal day.
“Once they’re off the trail, they’re not in our face,” Sikand said, fearing that most people would forget about the homeless again once they were no longer visible from a main thoroughfare into Santa Rosa. “Plus when they’re dispersed, they’re more vulnerable, and it’s harder for us to support them.”
“I’m worried we’re going to lose all the momentum that we’ve got,” Roberts said. “We’ve built relationships and trust.”
When the final day came, Roberts and the others from Sonoma County Acts of Kindness were out on the trail, helping people pack up their things.
This time, instead of merely throwing away people’s belongings as has happened in the past in Santa Rosa sweeps, the county provided large plastic totes for people to put their things in, which the county will store until their owners come to collect them.
“We spent the day helping people,” Roberts said. “There were a handful of people — the vulnerable few that were left on the trail — that were just having a really hard time getting motivated to move, so we went and talked to them and helped them transition out.”
One woman sat in her tent screaming and yelling and making suicidal threats. The police called in mental health, but when the woman emerged and recognized Roberts, they sat and talked for two or three hours and then Roberts helped her pack up her things.
Roberts said the rangers from Parks and Rec and the police were very patient.
The homeless that left the trail didn’t just disappear, of course. Two smaller camps have popped up: one on West Robles Road in west county and one in Fulton.
It’s unclear if they’ll be allowed to stay in either location.
Roberts had been worried about losing touch with the people they were helping, but she said that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Over the last few days, she’s been working on helping set up the Robles location, which is located on county property near the county transit bus storage lot.
Rochelle feels it’s an ideal place for another sanctioned encampment. “It’s out of sight, but close enough to where people can ride their bikes to get the things they need.”
It’s a rural area, Roberts said, so there are only two nearby neighbors. One seemed amenable to the encampment as long as it was kept clean and trash didn’t blow onto his property. The other neighbor is not at all happy about his new neighbors.
Rochelle said that Sonoma County Acts of Kindness is working with the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition from Forestville and Santa Rosa’s Democratic Socialists of America to setup the new encampment.
“Together we put up PVC pipe and tarps and have brought metal garbage pails with sand for cigarette butts and garbage cans, which we zip-tied to the fence,” she said.
They also brought in buckets with toilet seats and are hoping the county will bring in toilets soon.
The inhabitants of the encampment have agreed to limit the size of the Robles camp to 30 people. There are about 15 people there now. They’ve also developed a set of camp rules for themselves.
“We want to show that encampments like these really can work,” Roberts said, at least in the short term until the county comes up with a better solution.
The area is posted with signs saying the homeless are protected from removal by Martin v. Boise, known as the Boise decision, which said that local governments can’t prevent people from living on public property unless they’re offered better alternative shelter.
“They are supposed to have places to go, or the authorities can’t force them out,” Roberts said. “It’s not fair. These people are just so stressed out and they’re tired and they just want to rest, yet they’re just constantly being harassed. I mean, why don’t you leave them alone? Let us help them while the county works to get these newer encampments that they’re supposed to be opening open.”
For now, Roberts said they’re just taking things one day at a time. “We’re just doing what we can do,” she said.