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Proposal To Crack Down On Santa Rosa Homelessness Draws Criticism

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) -- A North Bay city could give police more power to crack down on crimes associated with the homeless.

But critics say it's criminalizing people who live on the street.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the city has tripled the amount of money it spends on homelessness in the past three years.

Coursey says this is a sign that what they're doing now isn't enough.

He hopes stronger enforcement will make a difference, but not all council members are on board.

It's an issue nearly every community in the Bay Area can't seem to solve: Homelessness and how to handle it.

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs said, "My primary concern is that we shouldn't be criminalizing homelessness."

But Mayor Coursey wants police to be able to crack down on quality of life issues.

Coursey said, "Criminalizing homelessness is putting people in prison for being homeless. There's no plan to do that in Santa Rosa."

In recent years police have issued citations for violating city ordinances, which carry a fine of $250.

In 2016, police issued 839 citations for quality of life issues. 728 of them went unpaid.

That's why Coursey wants police to start issuing misdemeanors, that carry a charge of $1,000 or up to six months in prison.

"I would like us, first, to make other adjustments," said Combs.

She wants to see more money spent on resources, rather than on enforcement, particularly for issues like sleeping on the street or public urination.

"Right now we lock our bathrooms at dusk so folks don't have a choice," Combs said.

John Battles is homeless, has struggled with addiction and just got into a shelter eight months ago. He says that assistance changed his life.

He said, "There's a lot of addicts out here that go back to their old ways. They really want help but there's not a lot of housing out here."

Battles said, "People need longer term programs, like 10 months or more just to have their minds ready for when they get out there."

The problem is that the beds are full.

Santa Rosa spends $2.5 million on resources each year and the mayor thinks enforcement will send a different message.

Mayor said, "No one has figured out how to solve this problem, we're trying. We're trying as hard as we can."

The police department and the district attorney support this change and agree this should be used sparingly.

They say the goal is not to put people in jail, it's to get people into housing. But they are hoping that enforcement will help in particularly egregious circumstances for repeat offenders.

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