January 13, 20205:04 AM ET Heard on Morning Edition
Charles Gibson pushes a shopping cart toward his soggy tent on a tenuous patch of a grassy drainage ditch along a bike trail in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s one of nearly 200 people living in a sprawling camp here that has sprung up along a popular recreation corridor. It’s a community, Gibson says, that often feels caught between opposing forces who aren’t always listening.
“I mean, they [local officials] want us to be able to govern ourselves, but they are not giving us the tools we need,” Gibson says. “They don’t want you hiding, but they don’t want you in their face, you know?”
Across California and other parts of the country, these growing homeless encampments evoke shantytown “Hoovervilles,” where hundreds of thousands of destitute Americans lived during the Great Depression. The encampments are frustrating residents, raising health and safety fears and fueling a debate over poverty and inequality in one of the nation’s wealthiest states.
The fight over the encampment in Santa Rosa in Northern California’s Sonoma County underscores the challenges of finding a lasting solution to the growing crisis. Amid a growing chorus of outrage at filthy, unsanitary conditions and the presence of rats and used drug needles, the camp has divided locals and even prompted an effort to recall a local politician.
“I never thought that I would drive past a mile-long shantytown on my way to work. And yet, that’s the reality that we’re facing right now in Sonoma County,” says County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the encampment.
For months, makeshift tarp, tent and pallet “homes” have filled a stretch of the paved bike trail that sides right next to Highway 12, a major commuter artery into Santa Rosa, the county seat.
“It’s incredibly challenging,” Hopkins says, noting she gets scores of emails each day from frustrated, alarmed and angry constituents. “I also get emails of people who are just heartbroken at seeing the level of suffering — people freezing cold, living in a tent in the rain with no access to running water or electricity or sewer services.”