At last week’s Sebastopol City Council meeting, a parade of homeowners from Palm Avenue, a half-commercial, half-residential spur of a street just south of the hospital, spoke during public comment about the growing problem of homeless people living on their street in vans, campers and, most recently, a large white bus with blacked-out windows.
Jacob Parker Maloney, whose property is at the end of Palm Avenue in unincorporated Sonoma County, led the charge.
“I’m here because we’ve had a build up of homeless people on our street, some who live there (in vehicles) and also overflow from the bike path and also the Laguna Foundation property,” Maloney said.
“I’m cleaning up hypodermic needles. I’m cleaning up trash in the Laguna and on Palm Avenue. I’m cleaning up excrement and pee bottles that are left on Palm Avenue,” Maloney said. “I’ve done two dump loads with my flat bed from trash from homeless people — mostly people dragging beds back into the brush.”
He’s also found people sleeping in his backyard, including “a guy who was wearing a ski mask and all black who had a knife on him and a bunch of drugs,” Maloney said.
“It’s getting so where my wife feels unsafe running in the evenings,” he said, a sentiment that was echoed by another woman who also lived on Palm Avenue.
“There are a number of times where when I’m driving home, and it feels very unsafe with people kind of hanging out in the middle of the street,” said Rebecca Hochmann. “It feels like a dangerous situation for people driving … and it has definitely felt increasingly uncomfortable going out by myself, like walking to the store or going downtown.”
“It used to feel very safe in our little cul de sac, but it’s definitely turned a corner,” she said. “I am not unsympathetic to the needs of these people, but it’s become more of an issue.”
Another neighbor Robert Groves, a disabled Vietnam veteran who identified himself as “the old man of Palm Avenue,” said he’s had enough.
“I’ve lived there for 35 years. Three years ago a van pulled up there,” he said, and the street got its first homeless person. “He’s brain damaged; his name is Phil. I learned that from a police officer who came out because Phil shambled up to our house — my wife and I were going to lunch one day — and he came up to our car and started screaming gibberish at us, saying my flag is a terrorist flag, and that everybody who lives on this block are terrorists.
“I called the police. They came out and said, ‘Oh, that’s just Phil. He’s harmless.’ Well, Harmless Phil was able to come up to our house and make my wife cry sitting in the car,” he said, noting he doesn’t fly his flag anymore for fear it will set Phil off.
“How come Harmless Phil has to live on our street and terrorize us?” he demanded. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Lisa Mendivil, who works in one of the medical offices on Palm, said she thinks the arrival of the large white bus is what pushed residents over the edge, noting that the man showered on the street, walking around wearing nothing but a towel during business hours, and that wasn’t the worst of it.
“I saw him dumping five-gallon jugs of pee on the trees,” she said.
She also said that she’d never had a problem with some of the longer term homeless residents of the street, including Harmless Phil and the man in the RV.
Groves said he called the police about the bus, “but police say they can’t do anything. I’m sympathetic, but enough’s enough,” Groves told the council.
What does Grove think should be done with Harmless Phil?
“He should be put on another street,” Groves concluded. “He can sit in front of your folk’s house, if you’d like.”
Judging from the look on most councilmembers’ faces, they did not like.
The city’s options
In 2014, a landmark legal decision by the Ninth Circuit Court, Desertrain v. the City of Los Angeles, struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that forbade people from living in vehicles on city streets, finding that it was unconstitutionally vague, didn’t provide adequate notice of the conduct it criminalized and promoted arbitrary enforcement against homeless people.
Ordinances like it in cities around the state — including Sebastopol’s — crashed down as well, and the number of homeless people living in their cars multiplied.
Sebastopol Chief of Police James Conner said he’s watched the number of homeless people sleeping in vehicles climb over the last five years. He estimates that there are now about 20 cars or RVs with people living in them in Sebastopol.
Though Conner said he understands why residents call his officers to deal with the homeless, he feels frustrated, both because his hands are legally tied, but also because homelessness is a complicated social issue that can’t be policed away.
“I understand that there are quality of life issues for the residents of areas impacted by this. I really do understand that. But we have to make sure that we are serving all of the community, and serving all members of the community means that we are taking seriously the rights and freedoms of people living in vehicles as well,” he said.
Conner said there are few tools remaining in the police toolkit when it comes to responding to residents’ complaints about homeless people living on their street. One is the 72-hour parking prohibition.
“That’s a California Vehicle Code, supplemented by our municipal code that says that a vehicle cannot be left parked on a city street in the same place for more than 72 hours,” he said. “To address that, we mark the vehicle where it sits, and we put a notice on it saying ‘You have 72 hours to move this vehicle before it faces removal from the street.’”
“That’s the official tool,” he said. “The unofficial tools that go along with it are trying to contact the residents of the car or RVs and finding out ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ Is there some criminal behavior going on here? Is there a warrant out for this person?”
Conner said police also look at things like “Do you have your property out of the vehicle so that its blocking the sidewalk, or if there’s garbage laying around and it’s pretty clear it came from you. Those are things that we can address beyond the 72-hour mark, because those are things that are unlawful conduct.”
As Los Angeles and Boise go, so goes Sebastopol
In its attempt to control its homeless population and make life livable for everyone else in the city, Los Angeles made another stab at regulating where the homeless could park their vehicles. In 2017, the city passed an ordinance banning people from living in vehicles in residential areas and within 500 feet of schools, daycares and parks. At the same time, the council made much of the city’s industrial areas open to vehicle camping and actually published a map, marking streets green where the homeless could park and red where they couldn’t.
The city renewed this ordinance at the end of July, and it has yet to be challenged in court.
Sebastopol’s City Manager Larry McLaughlin said Sebastopol could pass a similar ordinance — for example, by making Morris Street the city’s official homeless camping area, not that he’s recommending that, he emphasized.
Morris Street is already Sebastopol’s unofficial camping area, much to the dismay of its commercial neighbors. Last year, some storeowners at the Barlow and the owners of Coaches Corner asked the city to get rid of the people camping out in cars and RVs on Morris Street. The city looked into the idea of making all of Morris a two-hour parking zone.
“The council resisted doing that because they thought at the time that it would tend to force the campers into residential neighborhoods,” McLaughlin said.
Asked if Sebastopol could create a homeless parking area in one of the semi-rural areas on Sebastopol’s perimeter, McLaughlin said he didn’t think so.
“It is my understanding that if a city passes such an ordinance, it has to provide the alternative within city limits … The trouble is, within the city limits of Sebastopol, if there is a place that would be able to accommodate overnight camping, we don't know of it.”
Another legal decision, Martin v. Boise, may force Sebastopol and other cities to provide places for the homeless to live. In what seems a clear attempt to force cities to provide beds (and/or parking spaces) to homeless residents, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last September that cities within its circuit — including Sebastopol — couldn’t ticket people for sleeping on the street if they didn’t have anywhere else to go. This case is probably on its way to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, back on Palm Avenue
Residents on Palm Avenue say the police have been out in force ever since they spoke up at the city council meeting. The offending bus has moved on.
“At least temporarily,” Groves said skeptically.
Groves said that a homeless services organization came and picked up the homeless man in a wheelchair, who had recently appeared on Palm — though his belongings still sit in a pile behind a tree.
Harmless Phil is still there, as is a man living in an RV, who’s been there for about two years.
Councilmember Una Glass is sympathetic with the residents of Palm Avenue, but sees this neighborhood’s problem as part of a broader regional crisis.
“I am very concerned about what seems to be a sudden increase in the number of homeless individuals in Sebastopol,” she said. “I wonder if this is related to Santa Rosa’s ejection of the homeless from areas within their city limits. We must take a regional approach to solving homelessness otherwise we merely move individuals in crisis from one jurisdiction to another without solving anything.”
“Sebastopol has taken positive action with Park Village (a very-low income trailer park), but so much more is needed,” she said. “Regional efforts do not seem directed at people living outside or in RVs. We need to change that by continuing to work with the county and other city governments. We are a small city, and we can’t solve this alone.”