Northern News

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A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

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Sprawling homeless camps well beyond San Francisco

By Eric Westervelt, NPR, January 13, 2020

“Across California, … growing homeless encampments evoke shantytown ‘Hoovervilles,’ where hundreds of thousands of destitute Americans lived during the Great Depression. The encampments are frustrating residents, raising health and safety fears and fueling a debate over poverty and inequality in one of the nation’s wealthiest states.

“While homelessness is a hard-to-fix national problem, it is particularly severe in California. The state’s homeless population jumped 16 percent in the past year. And according to a January 2020 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, California’s homeless population of more than 150,000 accounts for 53 percent of all unsheltered people in the country.

“Across the state, residents are demanding robust coordinated action on what has now become a public health crisis. In Los Angeles County alone, the death rate for homeless people has risen steadily for years and in 2018 topped 1,000 — about three deaths a day.

“Public backlash in Sonoma County

“The fight over an encampment on a tenuous patch of a grassy drainage ditch along a bike trail in Santa Rosa underscores the challenges of finding a lasting solution to the growing crisis. Amid a growing chorus of outrage at filthy, unsanitary conditions and the presence of rats and used drug needles, the camp has divided locals and even prompted an effort to recall a local politician.

“ ‘I never thought that I would drive past a mile-long shantytown on my way to work. And yet, that’s the reality that we’re facing right now in Sonoma County,’ says County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the encampment.

“ ‘It just showcases the failure of government at all levels to meaningfully have a safety net for human beings,’ says Hopkins. ‘There’s just no room for error now, there’s no safety net.’

“The federal 9th Circuit has ruled that homeless people essentially have a constitutional right to camp on public property if local governments can’t provide enough shelter beds and services. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in that case. Those are services Hopkins says the county simply can’t afford now on its own.”

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