Dec 1, 2018
Sonoma County's homeless people have been dealt a double whammy in the last few weeks by dangerously smoky air and the sudden drop of nighttime temperatures to near freezing. Some 2,600 individuals are sleeping on county streets every night, according to Sheriff-elect Mark Essick.
The most recent of these came at the Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday, November 13, when Independent Police Auditor Bob Aaronson presented his Second Annual Report. Aaronson gave the department good grades on critical issues such as use of force but spoke candidly about the failure of the city's homeless policy.
Under Santa Rosa's Homeless Encampment Assistance Pilot Project, the police relentlessly track down and evict campers who have no other place to go.
"Officers have a hard time knowing that they are only ‘turfing’ the problem, pushing it around from one location to another and that, in the process of doing so, that they may be creating additional suffering in the homeless community," Aaronson reported. "This work, in addition to changing nothing for the disadvantaged, has only damaged officer morale."
Council members were defensive and attempted to invalidate Aaronson's findings but members of the public staunchly supported him.
"Mr. Aaronson is telling the truth," declared Homeless Action! member Kathryn Jurik, adding that homeless advocates have been told the same thing by police for some time.
"Council members seem to think that they can protect their failing policy by attacking him and throwing their own front line officers under the bus," Jurik said.
This year, systematic violations of international human rights standards for homeless people have been raised again and again by highly credible sources.
On October 20, the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights announced that it had resolved on the basis of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration as well as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that local governments have been carrying out "aggressive action in eliminating unsanctioned encampments without providing short or long term housing options for all residents without shelter and thus falling short of their obligation to honor the human rights of all residents."
Such actions "effectively criminalize homelessness," said Commission Chair Kevin Jones, adding that such criminalization contravenes the U.N. Committee of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and constitutes "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in violation of U.N. Article 9.
The Sonoma County Chapter of ACLU confirmed such violations and supported the Human Rights Commission resolution calling for "a safe camping area, as promised, for immediate use with security, hygiene and sanitation facilities, trash collection and case management services" as well as the creation "with all due haste" of safe haven villages of tiny homes with the same wraparound services.
Such solutions have taken firm root in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere as a continuum of Housing First, an approach which is embraced by Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.
In September, U.N. Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha decried homeless conditions in the Bay Area as "a cruelty that is unsurpassed." Citing the denial of access to water, sanitation, health services and other basic necessities, Farha demanded that "Such punitive policies must be prohibited by law and immediately ceased.
In Santa Rosa Homeless Action! has, for example, provided portable toilets to encampments on numerous occasions. In every instance, the toilets were removed by authorities within 24 hours. Adrienne Lauby, co-founder of Homeless Action! says that the current situation is dire.
"Homeless people die in the rain and cold every winter in Sonoma County. Shame on us for allowing people no option other than the vulnerability and degradation of sleeping outside while public and private buildings sit empty," Lauby said.
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