The Press Democrat July 18, 2002




South of Petaluma where the town unravels into a loose weave of industrial yards, highway overpasses and parched hills, homeless people have made camps, mostly out of view, in pockets of open space along the railroad tracks. But the southern edge of town, once a place where the homeless went to be left alone, is no longer open for squatting.  Wednesday morning, Sonoma County sheriff's deputies came through the area to tell those remaining that they need to be out by the end of the month.


A steady stream of complaints from neighboring businesses along the tracks prompted the Sheriff's Department to team up with representatives from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District to clear the camps along the tracks.


No arrests were made for trespassing, and belongings were not seized in this sweep. Nick Baker, who has worked extensively with the homeless at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, was there to inform people of services they may not know about, such as the opening of Santa Rosa's 40-bed year-round shelter earlier this year. Petaluma's shelter closes in the summer, except to families with children.


Wednesday morning, deputies and others piled into a white Suburban rigged to ride the rails on a search for camps along the way and to post fliers warning squatters to clear out by July 31. It was the first installment of a novel, countywide sweep aimed at identifying settlements and, ultimately, dislodging squatters from the tracks running from Petaluma to Healdsburg. ``Our goal is to identify the camps and to put them on notice,'' said Sgt. Brett Sackett. ``Next time we won't warn them again. We'll be cleaning them up.''


A count of the homeless earlier this year found 1,450 county-wide. In Petaluma, John Records of the Committee on the Shelterless said there are 400 to 600 homeless.


In six hours, the crew visited a total of 16 camps en route to Windsor, nearly half of them in Petaluma.

In Sonoma County, those living within the right of way of the tracks, a slice that can be anywhere from 50 to 100 feet wide, are considered trespassers. The land has been owned by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority since its purchase from the Union Pacific in 1996.


In the past, railroad authority representatives said, warning and clearing out trespassers was the responsibility of the freight operators. In the absence of operational trains, the duty has fallen to the sheriff and now to the Golden Gate Bridge district, which oversees the tracks. The district, together with the North Coast Railway Authority and Marin County, owns the tracks.


It is by the side of the tracks between South Petaluma Boulevard and Petaluma Creek that Dawn Jones, 39, has made her home in the bamboo that grows on the hillside above Haystack Bridge. Jones said she lived out of her car for 13 years before moving to this camp two years ago to live with her boyfriend. She said she had cleaned up after the dozen squatters who had cleared out in advance of the sweep and prides herself on keeping it neat.

``I don't believe in littering, whether I'm homeless or not,'' Jones said.


But law enforcement officers said keeping camps clean is not enough. Les Shorter, whose company, Western Dock Enterprises, occupies about eight acres along the west bank of the river and has an easement across the tracks, said he complained to the Sheriff's Department about disturbances he attributes to the people camped out along the tracks. Most of the problems happen in the middle of the night, he said. Gas is siphoned from company trucks. Car batteries are stolen. Shorter said neither he nor his employees have actually spotted their homeless neighbors stealing, but it's a problem he wants solved. ``It's a big nuisance,'' Shorter said. The homeless use batteries to run TVs, he said. ``We seem to lose batteries.''


Just up the hill from Jones' hidden camp and below the road is the camp where David and Eva White live with their dog, their TV, VCR and satellite dish. Their camp is about 100 feet from the tracks, but they received a flier to leave anyway, since they appear to be on private property.  ``If we could find low-income housing we would love to move in. We make too much money to qualify for programs but not enough to afford our own place,'' said David White.


Sgt. Ryan Reese, who checks in once a week at the Petaluma camps, said he hoped the warning would nudge people to start moving.  ``You kind of build a rapport with them,'' he said. ``They know me and call me by my first name.''


Jim Vasu has lived in the area along the tracks for the past several years. Now 42, he said he has spent most of his adult life sleeping out in the open -- and prefers it that way. He survives by selling cans to the Novato Disposal recycling facility. On a Wednesday afternoon he can be seen cycling along Petaluma Boulevard South, bringing a load of cans and bottles to the recycling facility. The owner of the facility has nothing against Vasu, but said he suspects homeless people of pilfering from piles of cans and bottles and then selling them back for 77 cents a pound.


The Sheriff's Department said another sweep will be conducted at the end of the month.