Santa Rosa Police Officers Jason Brandt and Brian Sinigiani sat in a police van by the Fifth Street underpass during a weekly Wednesday morning homeless encampment cleanup. Those living on the street knew the officers by name, and the officers knew theirs, their addictions and their stories.
Brandt and Sinigiani estimated there are more than 200 chronically homeless in downtown Santa Rosa with whom they are on a first name basis. Nearly all have been offered services, they said.
“We’re trying to take away all of the excuses and break down the barriers to get them off the street,” Sinigiani said. “We’re really social workers with a law enforcement aspect.”
Sinigiani and his partner are among the top sources of referrals to Catholic Charities’ Homeless Outreach Services Team. But they take the law seriously and aren’t afraid to make arrests and write citations. Brandt said he makes more arrests now than he did while working patrol.
“Our goal is not to arrest people and put them in jail,” said Brandt. “We’re trying to correct bad behavior and get them out of the cycle.”
The two officers’ interactions with homeless people are now being tracked by the city, part of an effort to understand just how much time police officers and firefighters spend responding to calls involving homelessness — and whether there are better ways to solve the problem.
To get a handle on the amount of police and fire resources being dedicated to homelessness in the city, police officers, firefighters and medical responders began tagging calls for services as “homeless-related incidents” last August. The data is used to create maps — which can be viewed by the public online — showing where homeless problems are concentrated in the city.
“If we can’t measure the problem, it’s hard to know how best to allocate resources,” said Lt. John Snetsinger, who oversees the downtown team. “Around the city 50 percent of our officers’ time is unallocated and they spend a lot of that time dealing with homeless issues.”
Since homeless-related incidents began to be fully recorded, 230 — or 33 percent — of the 686 average monthly arrests are of people who self-identified as homeless, Snetsinger said. This corresponds with the population of Sonoma County Jail, where the Sheriff’s Office has reported that nearly a third of the inmates are homeless.
So far this year, 11 percent of the 13,423 medical and fire calls in Santa Rosa were homeless-related. The vast majority, 993 calls, were for medical problems.
This has led to a disproportionate number of homeless people entering not just the county jail, but the Memorial Hospital emergency room as well.
Beyond the numbers, the visible impacts of homelessness are clear throughout the city.
Outside the van where Brandt and Sinigiani sat during the sidewalk cleanup at the Fifth Street underpass, homeless residents picked up their belongings off the sidewalk and crews from the Santa Rosa Department of Public Works swept up the refuse left behind.
Workers with Catholic Charities’ HOST program spoke with those who found shelter at the underpass and offered services yet again to those they’ve grown to know over the months.
Everyone knew the drill, knew their roles: move belongings, clean the street, offer services. There are plenty of services — no homeless person in Santa Rosa goes hungry or without clothing, but there’s not enough beds even if people wanted to get off the street.
Brandt and Sinigiani were driving a van, as opposed to their normal cruiser or electric motorcycles, for what they began to refer to, in jest, as a “homeless safari.” They regularly take the media, bureaucrats and elected officials on tours for a ground-level view of homelessness in the city — all trying to understand the size and the scope of the issue.
But there’s a growing feeling among Santa Rosa residents, city officials and police that to break the cycle of homelessness, the growing normalcy must also be broken.
Santa Rosa dedicates $1.8 million annually to homeless services, a police substation, six officers — including Brandt and Sinigiani — and a sergeant to tackle homeless-related issues in the city. And while the number of people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County has been trending down, they have been concentrating in downtown Santa Rosa.
Snetsinger hopes tracking the number of homeless-related incidents that draw responses from the police and fire departments will help target social services and law enforcement resources to break the status quo.
The city of Santa Rosa has used the new data, and the corresponding geographic coordinates, to create a “heat map” displaying the locations of homeless-related incidents in the city.
Yellow areas on the map show where calls involving homeless people are most concentrated. Downtown Santa Rosa, down the Joe Rodota Trail running parallel with Highway 12, up to Coddingtown Mall and over the Farmers Lane Extension, where “Homeless Hill” is located, are covered in yellow showing a high number of police and fire calls.
The map mirrors the tour Brandt and Sinigiani give. The Highway 101 underpasses alone at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets and Railroad Square resulted in nearly 1,000 police calls and more than 500 fire incidents since data collection started last year.
The area around Coddingtown Mall had nearly 800 police calls and 170 fire incidents.
The interactive map is largely similar for police and fire responses, with a few exceptions. In the southwest corner of the city, there is a high concentration of fire calls, 223, where the 138-bed Samuel L. Jones Hall homeless shelter is located. In that area there were only 18 police calls.
For Jennielynn Holmes, senior director of shelter and housing with Catholic Charities, this is an example of how sheltering the homeless can abate public safety concerns. But, it also shows the need for on-site medical care. A full-time nurse would be cheaper than hundreds of trips to the emergency room, Holmes said.
Back in the police van, Brandt and Sinigiani drove across the city to an area known as Homeless Hill at the Farmer’s Lane Extension. Brandt, who grew up in Santa Rosa and has been on the police force for 17 years, said homeless people have built shelters on this piece of city property for as long as he could remember.
Just last year an influx of support services and law enforcement action reduced the population on the hill to less than 10, but over the year it has grown to nearly 50 people. Since last August, there were 181 police calls to the encampment and 138 fire calls.
There are no roads or easy access into the encampment, only dirt paths cut tight through vegetation that causes problems for medical aid to get in, said Brandt. Access is particularly difficult in winter months when the trails are full of ankle-deep mud.
Brandt and Sinigiani walk through the encampment with the HOST team and other law enforcement including Snetsinger.
They ask residents, many whom they know, if they would like to be put in touch with people who could help them find housing. Many have shacks with roofs, walls and an established community.
Collecting better data alone won’t solve the problem of homelessness, but it helps reveal the broader impacts, said Snetsinger, who navigated a used syringe and a dead mouse on the ground at the top of the hill.
“It’s really hard putting a cost to homelessness,” Snetsinger said. “But with keeping track of (homeless-related incidents) it’s helping.”