We All Should Stand With Our Unsheltered Neighbors

A bulldozer dumping possessions left in Santa Rosa’s Cancer Park during the second homeless encampment sweep

Displacement, eviction, sweeps: all different words for the same kind of community trauma. Now with COVID-19, they also mean a public health risk to everyone here in Sonoma County.

The Wallbridge fire is one in a long line of climate-related disasters. Every fire season, thousands in the North Bay have to imagine what it would be like if everything they had was gone in an instant — and what would happen to them when the fire was over. People have to grapple with the housing stock that remains, and how little of it is actually affordable to working families. Communities become scattered, either across the county or even further.

All of this is also true for sweeps of homeless encampments, like the one that took place on Tuesday. When unsheltered people’s communities are uprooted by the police, they face the same traumas. And in the aftermath, their options are even fewer. I was one of the volunteers who came out to help people move their possessions, and I asked the residents I worked with if they knew where they were going to go. Most of them said they weren’t sure. The city keeps proposing solutions that are more hot air than substance, and when new encampments form it’s a matter of time before the cops send another eviction notice. Police and city employees brought construction equipment to destroy any possessions that people couldn’t move with, callously dumping the remnants into enormous metal crates. This is more than kicking a can down the road, this is kicking people when they’re down.

Tuesday’s sweep was the second wave of a previous eviction in July that halved the camp. The police claimed this was for COVID safety. But if that’s the case, why contradict their own shelter-in-place order by scattering people and demolishing what shelter they had?

In every Homeless Census since 2016, over 70% of unsheltered residents have been in Sonoma County for at least a year, and most of them were housed here before becoming homeless. Our county has created conditions that funnel people into homelessness, conditions that have gone unaddressed for a long time.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Sonoma County did not have nearly enough resources and shelter space to meet the needs of our unsheltered neighbors. The city and police departments regularly claim to offer services in order to avoid adhering to the Vanucci injunction, a court order requiring police to confirm the availability of suitable shelter beds for all unsheltered people they evict, as well as properly document and store the belongings of anyone who is not present when the sweep takes place. But this time HOST, the city’s contracted aid service, only obtained shelter for 15 of the 80 camp residents that day. That means 65 people were sent away without even an option for shelter. Those offerings are minimal, especially when the county and cities do so little to prioritize them. The 2020–2021 General Fund for Santa Rosa — where most of these sweeps occur — is flush with money to arm police and sheriffs to the teeth, but only allocates 1% of the city budget to housing and community services. Some claim the camps aren’t clean or medically safe, but then in the same breath will refuse to put in public bathrooms or hand washing stations even when medical workers suggest it. And the narrative we hear to justify the sweeps is always blaming the victims.

When fires strike, the county is always quick to roll out disaster response. They open shelters in empty buildings, put money towards necessities, and bring together all manner of resources. What if all of that was permanent? Why doesn’t the county treat the homelessness crisis like it treats imminent crises for homeowners? We are in the midst of so many long-standing disasters, and it is a choice to withhold those resources from our unsheltered neighbors. After all, when people lose their shelters to climate catastrophes, evictions, job loss or high rent, they then become homeless. Those with shelter now could be a few payments away from loosing it. And that’s when the county stops caring.

Noa is a member of Media Misfits SoCo, an independent media collective in Sonoma County, California.