Human Rights Abuses in Wake of Sonoma County Fires

When I first arrived in Sonoma County as a new student at Sonoma State University I was greeted with a few lovely towns with nice people who are overly friendly. Coming from San Francisco this was a shock. But I noticed something strange… The homeless community is constantly pushed around and hidden from the greater population to preserve this fantasy world of a lovely nice perfect place to live.

In October 2017 a multitude of fires hit Sonoma County hard. Destroying hundreds of homes and making an already crowded housing market even more crowded. This caused an almost overnight increase in homelessness in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The county couldn’t hide homeless people anymore. Homeless Action an advocacy group in Santa Rosa has alleged that because of this increase in transient lives the police and the county administration have begun committing a litany of human rights violations.

“Homeless people are being relocated continuously and cited or arrested when they refuse to move, a potential example of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment,” the report contends. The group also argues that those with disabilities are not receiving proper accommodations, as spelled out under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As is the case in San Francisco, the police deny the abuses pointed to by advocacy groups. “In all circumstances, the Police Department exercises compassion and care related to our citizens’ constitutional rights,” Lt. Mike Lazzarini spokesman for the police said.

The human rights advocates in Sonoma County aren’t taking this lying down. Recently there has been an increase in quality of life infractions, which are given for life sustaining activities such as sitting, camping, and lying down. To help negate the detrimental affect the fines from these petty charges can have on a homeless people Homeless Action has begun a campaign of taking these citations to court and trying to get them overturned. One notable case involved a 21 year old whose charges were overturned when a judge determined that the video of this man lying on the corner at no time showed that anybody had to walk around him to go about their usual business. There are quite a few cases like this currently being resolved through the court system, many having to do with camping under highway 101 during the winter.

San Francisco and Sonoma’s responses to homelessness also share similarities in that new government programs have been set up to “solve” the homeless problem. In San Francisco it takes the form of a new department of the government in the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and Healthy Streets Operating Center, familiarly known as “the command center.” Sonoma has its own smaller scale version of this bureaucratic response to homelessness called HEAP. All of these programs use very specific language like completed and resolved when they refer to homeless encampments. This language not only dehumanizes the people living in those encampments by not even referring to them as people in most cases but also gives the false impression that the sweeps of these encampments has actually done something for “solving” homelessness. My work with the coalition has shown me how much of a catastrophic failure these programs have been in San Francisco simple pushing people from neighborhood to neighborhood without ever really making any real headway. I have spoken to an advocate working for Homeless Action and they called HEAP a “catastrophic failure” and hopes that this failure leads them to listen to advocates and service providers for solutions instead of continuing sweeps that do little to nothing.

I also learned that although the fires did compound there work Homeless Action has been working against sweeps and injustices for years. One culmination of these efforts is the 14 page report presented to the Sonoma County Commision on Human Rights that alleges the current treatment of homeless people by police, city officials, and outreach workers violates the Fourth and Eighth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The American Disabilities Act and seven articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In a suit against the city of Santa Rosa Homeless Action unsuccessfully tried to bring a restraining order against the city. The judge in this case claimed they believed that the city provides adequate shelter therefore there is no need to have a restraining order protecting people’s tents. This is blatantly not true, similar to San Francisco, Santa Rosa is struggling to find shelter for its homeless population. At about 3,000 or so about 2,000 remained unhoused and unsheltered. San Francisco has very different numbers especially depending on who you ask but the one thing people agree on is not nearly enough people are housed. This is partially due to the fact that the programs around homelessness have been specifically designed to not help homeless people but minimize their effect on the communities that they are a part of. This is a blatant disregard for human life. To value one member of the community over another is an extremely dangerous path to go down. You risk claiming that your city can decide who does and who doesn’t have a right to exist within its borders. This in no way reflects the values that we as Americans should have. If we allow our cities to take this position as Sonoma and San Francisco have we set a precedent that it’s ok for cities to do this and soon the whole country will be blatantly treating homeless people like they are not members of their own communities. We are already close to this ultimatum and if attitudes don’t change it will only get first.