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Sonoma County to allow overnight camping in public spaces amid uptick in homeless population

Judge's order halts clearing of homeless encampment from Joe Rodota Trail
Judge's order halts clearing of homeless encampment from Joe Rodota Trail 00:31

SANTA ROSA -- Sonoma County will allow overnight camping in some public spaces after the county's Board of Supervisors amended local regulations Tuesday that strictly prohibited outdoor encampments.

The board unanimously voted to continue prohibiting daytime camping on public property between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., but overnight encampments will be allowed.

The ordinance approved Tuesday also prohibits camping in public buildings, very high fire severity zones, county parks, public highways and roads, public right-of-ways that obstruct pedestrians and within 100 feet of any playground, school, daycare facility, residence or residential district.

The board will be required to hold a second, ratifying vote on the ordinance at a future meeting. At that time, the board will also consider prohibiting camping within 150 feet of the high-water mark of rivers, lakes and other waterways.

According to the county, residents will not be moved from their encampments or cited under the new camping rules without "advance notification and warning."

"We will continue to lean in on homelessness, by providing program support, shelter and housing to our most vulnerable," Board Chair James Gore said in a statement. "We will also hold accountability over encampments."

homeless encampment Joe Rodota Trail
Lisa (who declined to give her last name) walks along the trail at a homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail while pushing a shopping cart to pick up bones/some dogs at the encampment, December 11, 2019 in Santa Rosa. Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Camping has previously been strictly prohibited at all hours of the day across the county, but that ban has not been enforced in recent years as local officials sought to comply with the 2019 federal appellate court ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, which held that unsheltered residents have a right to sleep in public spaces when shelter is unavailable.

The county also sought to make outdoor camping easier after Sonoma County's 2022 Point-in-Time census of sheltered and unsheltered homeless residents found a population increase of 5 percent since the previous count in 2020.

According to the county, 2,893 homeless residents were counted during the survey on Feb. 25, 61 percent of whom were unsheltered.

In 2020, 2,745 homeless residents were tallied countywide. A Point-in-Time count was not conducted in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both totals are long-term decreases in the county's population of homeless residents, which sat at 4,539 in 2011.

County officials also speculated a larger increase between 2020 and 2022 in the population of homeless residents was likely mitigated by emergency funding during the first two years of the pandemic.

Roughly one-third of those counted reported that they were homeless for the first time and that they became homeless after an eviction or the loss of their job.

The results of the count will be used to determine how much funding the county receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The county received $4.1 million in federal support related to its previous Point-in-Time count data this year.
"It emphasizes ... that solving homelessness requires so many different housing solutions," Sonoma County Community 

Development Commission Director Dave Kiff said of the survey. "It's vital that we work with our local, state and federal partners to get the resources and flexibility to do so."

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