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As homeless numbers rise, Sonoma County to allow camping in certain public spaces

A plaza with benches, trees, a fountain, and a ramada, in a town center in Healdsburg, California
Wayne Hsieh
Flickr Creative Commons
Healdsburg Plaza, Healdsburg, Sonoma County

Sonoma County supervisors are considering a proposed amendment to the county’s camping ordinance introduced earlier this week by Deputy County Counsel Matt Lilligren.

The county once had a strict anti-camping policy in public areas. But they stopped enforcing the policy after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled three years ago that it was unfair to punish unhoused people sleeping in public spaces if there were no adequate alternatives. Sonoma County has been working on a new ordinance to comply with that decision, so it can resume enforcement.

The current regulations prohibit nearly all camping in public – at any time and any place. This meant unhoused people risked getting ticketed and fined for sleeping on public property. The new version would allow camping in some public areas from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

This February, the unhoused population in Sonoma County was more than 2,800 individuals, an increase of more than a hundred since 2020. County Department of Health Services Director Tina Rivera said the increase was driven by a rise in homeless veterans and young adults, aged 18 to 24.

Rivera said the county’s goal is zero functional homelessness, where homelessness is reduced to a rare, brief, and one-time experience. She said doing so would take more permanent solutions, like housing, and that too many people are stuck with interim solutions, such as temporary shelters.

Sunday is a news producer for Crosscurrents' summer training program.