This is part two of a two-part profile on Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who is running for a second term in the upcoming election on March 3. Find part 1, "Lynda Hopkins’ first term was a trial by fire and flood," Jan. 22, 2020, at sonomawest.com.
Lynda Hopkins has been wrestling with the problem of homelessness ever since she became Fifth District supervisor four years ago — first along the Russian River and now along the Joe Rodota Trail. If elected for another term, she says dealing with homelessness will be her first priority, followed by climate change and infrastructure improvements.
Early in her term, Hopkins worked hard on the homeless problem in Guerneville, even wading in with rubber boots and gloves to help clean up encampments before the rains washed everything into the Russian River. In addition to this hands-on approach, she worked closely with local homelessness agencies and looked into purchasing a property to house the river’s homeless population. (Neighborhood resistance to this latter idea proved impossible to overcome.)
“I’m proud of the investment that we made in addressing homelessness in the lower Russian River,” she said. “We’ve seen a 20% decline in homelessness in that area since I’ve been in office, despite floods and fires. That is really the result of working very closely with the community and with our service providers and investing $1 million in one-time funds to try to address what was a crisis when I walked into office.”
She also took the lead on the dispersal of a homeless encampment that popped up in the Park & Ride at the corner of Mirabel and River Road in Forestville.
“Obviously though, the homelessness crisis continues and has become very, very visible in western Santa Rosa again in recent months,” she said, referring to the large encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, which the county planned to clear on Wednesday, Jan. 29 (after press time).
The clearance of the trail will be the dénouement of a months-long crisis that has drawn national attention to the problem of homelessness in Sonoma County.
The homeless population on the Joe Rodota Trail grew relentlessly in the second half of last year, fed in part by the city of Santa Rosa’s policy of clearing homeless encampments without providing those people another place to go.
Many of the people displaced by homeless sweeps in Santa Rosa gravitated to the trail, which is located on county land in Hopkins’ district. By the end of the year, a sodden shantytown of wet tents and plastic sheeting stretched for two miles down the Joe Rodota Trail.
A polarized response
Frustrated by government inaction, residents concerned about the trail polarized into two groups. One group, including angry homeowners from neighborhoods near the trail, simply wanted the encampment removed. They deluged the supervisors, including Hopkins, with pleas for help, which they said went unanswered for months.
Others saw the situation on the trail as a humanitarian crisis. Organized by groups like the Sebastopol-based Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, these Good Samaritans began walking the trail with wagons loaded down with sandwiches, burritos and other food for the homeless — as well as clothing, tents, blankets and sleeping bags. This did not endear them to the trail’s neighbors, who viewed them as enabling the “campers.”
The board takes action — finally
This combination of citizen unrest and newfound activism in support of the homeless reached a crescendo in December, and in response, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declared a homeless emergency on the trail and devised an $11.6 million plan to deal with the crisis.
That plan is currently unfolding. Last week, the county set up 60 temporary shelters on county property in the Sonoma Valley and began moving some residents of the trail there. The county also purchased two communal houses and began work on creating a “sanctioned encampment” somewhere in the county, where homeless individuals can camp and park in safety — though that won’t be ready until the end of the year.
The county has promised that by the end of January, the encampment on the trail will be gone.
What took so long?
Many wonder what took the board of supervisors so long to act.
Stuart Kiehl, who lives in a neighborhood near the trail, started a recall campaign against Hopkins in December. He feels that Hopkins, more at home in the rural climes of west county, ignored his urban neighborhood and allowed the encampment on the trail to get completely out of hand.
“She was in charge,” he said, calling her response (or what he sees as her lack of response) as “a dereliction of duty.”
Kiehl, who has a military background and is now a charter boat captain said, “She has allowed an invasion and an occupation of our neighborhood.”
Although Hopkins is willing to take her portion of responsibility for the situation on the trail, she feels that singling her out as its sole cause is unfair.
“Seeing one person as being responsible for decades of failed policies is a vast oversimplification of the world. It’s easy to demonize someone and blame them for everything, but it’s not accurate,” Hopkins said. “We’re facing the results of literally decades of failed policies at the local, state and federal level.”
She mentioned deinstitutionalization under Reagan and a chronic lack of funding for this issue.
Hopkins said she finds Kiehl’s critique particularly irksome because “I can’t think of any other local elected official who has put in as many hours on trying to address homelessness in Sonoma County as I have put in over the past three years, aside from Mayor Tom Schwedhelm of Santa Rosa.”
Hopkins said there were several things that made the homelessness crisis on the trail particularly difficult to deal with, starting with overlapping jurisdictions. Although physically located inside the boundaries of the city of Santa Rosa, the trail is on county property and is overseen by the Regional Parks Department, whose rangers, Hopkins said, aren’t trained in the kind of policing required to deal with a homeless encampment. Because the trail was inside the city, however, the Santa Rosa Police also claimed jurisdiction, but there was a growing feeling among social service agencies in the county that Santa Rosa’s policy of clearing homeless camps was simply moving the problem from one place to another.
“It’s been really hard to get everybody pointed in the same direction toward a common set of solutions, especially when you have a bifurcation between law enforcement and social services agencies,” Hopkins said.
This problem is exacerbated, Hopkins said, by her rather startling discovery that no government agency — not at the federal, state or local level — has an official mandate to deal with homelessness.
“Homelessness is not technically anybody’s responsibility, which is crazy, right?” Hopkins said. “There’s no prescription for whether it should be handled by the city, or the county or law enforcement or social services.
“And then we’re further bound by this overlay of court decisions that tie our hands with what we can and can’t do with respect to the homeless. It isn’t just as easy as snapping your fingers and saying, “Go!”
Solving the problem of solving the problem of homelessness
Hopkins said that earlier this fall, she spent weeks organizing a meeting of all of the overlapping agencies that dealt with the issue of homelessness on the Joe Rodota trail.
“I had lined up the entire Santa Rosa City Council and my colleagues on the board to go walk the Joe Rodota Trail to talk about how we can address this. What can local government do? How can we work together between the city and the county to solve this?”
That meeting, scheduled for the end of October, got kicked off the calendar by the Kincade Fire and, according to Hopkins, the entire county was thrown back into disaster mode — something she’s become all too familiar with over the past four years.
That said, Hopkins thinks the board of supervisors, as a whole, has been slow to react to the growing problem of homelessness in the county.
Hopkins is a staunch proponent of the housing-first approach to homelessness, and supports the idea of sanctioned encampments, providing safe, legal places for the homeless to park and camp.
“I really believe that there are innovative solutions that government has been resisting for a long time,” she said. “Things that I’ve been asking about ever since I’ve been on the board, like sanctioned encampments that provide at least a habitable shelter and bathrooms and showers; or tiny house villages; or how to get creative with mobile home parks.”
“But I’m only one vote out of five, and we didn’t have a board majority to stand up for that kind of a solution,” in this case, sanctioned encampments — “until December. I can work with my colleagues, I can try to convince them, but at the end of the day, I’m only one vote out of five.”
Sometimes, it feels like a lonely road, which is why Hopkins values the help of others like Schwedhelm, who are struggling with similar issues.
“We have 4,500 employees that work for the county of Sonoma,” Hopkins said. “How is it that I’m running the shutdown of the encampment out of my office?”
“There should be a system in place,” she said. “That’s what I’m really working toward. I should be able to pick up the phone and say ‘We have a problem here. Go implement the protocol.’ The problem is that protocol doesn’t exist and I’ve been working to try to create it.”
Creating that protocol is part of the work of the Homeless Leadership Council of which Hopkins is a board member. The Homeless Leadership Council is part of a bureaucratic restructuring effort started in 2018 to rethink the traditionally piecemeal approach to providing homeless services that’s characterized county policy for years. Unfortunately, according to Hopkins, this effort is still in its infancy.
“The problem is that we have this whole screwed-up system that’s like a giant aircraft carrier,” she said, “and you’re trying to turn it and it takes a long time to turn that ship around.”