Sprawling Homeless Camps — Modern 'Hoovervilles' — Vex California The wrangling over what to do about a sprawling homeless camp in Santa Rosa, Calif., highlights how hard it is to find answers for a growing crisis across California and much of the West.
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Sprawling Homeless Camps — Modern 'Hoovervilles' — Vex California

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Sprawling Homeless Camps — Modern 'Hoovervilles' — Vex California

Sprawling Homeless Camps — Modern 'Hoovervilles' — Vex California

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Cities in the American West are trying to deal with homeless encampments that are getting bigger and more visible. They remind some people of Hoovervilles, where hundreds of thousands of Americans lived during the Great Depression. Now, California has the highest number of tent cities. NPR's Eric Westervelt went to one, and he brought us back this.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Santa Rosa's sprawling tent and tarp village has frustrated and divided residents, sparked a recall effort and heated debates over poverty and inequality in Sonoma County's wine country.

CHARLES GIBSON: They call me Cowboy, but my name is Charles Gibson (ph). And I'm living on the trail here.

WESTERVELT: Wiry, frenzied, with a few missing teeth, Gibson got his nickname, he says, because he always cowboys up for other people despite the hardships of life among broken pallets and soggy tents. This massive camp isn't hidden in the woods. It's right on a popular biking and jogging path. Gibson and some 200 others have been living for months in a grassy drainage ditch that straddles the path and Highway 12, a main commuter artery into the city. Gibson concedes the camp has serious problems with garbage and rats, inadequate toilets and some drug use. But he says it has a sense of community.

GIBSON: It's a struggle for anybody to keep warm and keep your heart and head light and strong. Doing the best I can. And, you know, it's very hard, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOPPING CART ROLLING)

WESTERVELT: Gibson pushes a shopping cart towards his tenuous patch of grass. At the tent next to his, an older woman pops her head out, shouting obscenities at no one in particular.

GIBSON: People need to open up their eyes and realize they could end up like this. A lot of people are one step away.

WESTERVELT: Homelessness is a nationwide problem, but it's particularly severe here in California. A new federal HUD report estimates the state has more than 150,000 homeless, including those in shelters. Overall, the state has more than half of all unsheltered homeless in the nation, meaning those living outdoors. Given the growing disaster, Governor Gavin Newsom has just proposed more than $1.4 billion in his new budget for state and local efforts on immediate housing and services. He's also ordered state agencies to do more to help find temporary sites, including decommissioned hospitals or unused land for the state's expanding homeless encampments.

LYNDA HOPKINS: 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.

WESTERVELT: That's County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the homeless camp.

HOPKINS: There's just no room for error right now. There's no safety net. In my opinion, it just showcases the failure of government at all levels to meaningfully have a safety net for human beings.

WESTERVELT: The first-term politician is now facing blowback from those failures. A few angry constituents are working to recall her. Their petition says she's failed to act and calls the homeless encampment a public cesspool that's ruining businesses and homes. In fact, Hopkins has helped lead efforts to find solutions, including emergency funds, to a complex problem that cuts across issues - addiction and mental health treatment, rising housing costs, stagnant wages and poverty. Complicating attempts to find a solution here include a local injunction and a federal court ruling. They hold that homeless people have a right to camp on public property if local governments can't provide adequate shelter beds and services, things Hopkins says the county can't afford on its own.

HOPKINS: So how can we provide alternatives when we don't have enough money from the state or federal government to actually provide adequate mental health services, to actually provide adequate housing and shelter for these human beings?

WESTERVELT: Hopkins and other politicians here are promising to relocate the camp, likely to a parking lot near the airport, within weeks while they design a more permanent housing strategy. That lasting fix could take two years or more. And a new group of concerned citizens here says that's unacceptable. They're asking, if we can all pull together for each other during a wildfire crisis, why not a homeless crisis?

MARCOS RAMIREZ: We know how to do this. We know how to take care of people. We've just seen it recently with the Kincade Fire.

WESTERVELT: Marcos Ramirez is a founder of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition. It's a volunteer group of regular folks - artists, designers, a beekeeper, an architect. They're trying to break the familiar pattern of outrage hand-wringing and wrangling.

RAMIREZ: If we can organize shelter support, huge amounts of response, emergency services and these kinds of things, there's no reason why we can't do this for our unhoused neighbors. It's the middle of winter, and things are only getting colder. There's no excuse for this.

WESTERVELT: The group has drawn up detailed proposals. One is to retrofit an unused section of the county's fairgrounds into a more permanent camp with onsite support, counseling and job services. And they hope to inspire the formation of more squeaky wheel coalitions in cities across California facing the same kind of homeless camp crisis. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Santa Rosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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