The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa) recently reported a death at a homeless encampment near Stony Point Road and Highway 12 in Santa Rosa. The small article noted that foul play was suspected in the death of a homeless woman. This is the second death this year at the camp, which is located adjacent to the bike path I ride daily and I would probably recognize the victim since there are about a dozen regulars including only a couple of women. I haven’t felt that I’ve been in any personal danger as I pass through that stretch, but it certainly gives me pause. Though the Santa Rosa Police sometimes patrol along the Prince Memorial Greenway on Santa Rosa Creek, I have only seen them along the West County Trail once and they were making an arrest.

In some ways, life along the path in Santa Rosa is probably pretty much as it was when the trains traveled that route. It’s an area that is largely invisible from the streets and the urban portion is a world of graffiti-covered fences and backs of old warehouses. A pair of junkyards flank the path, along with burned-out buildings and barbed wire. Elderly residents of a senior trailer park occasionally stroll with their dogs past the chain-link fence separating them from the path. A generator hums in the yard of a decrepit house tucked in the corner of a freight trailer parking area. Closer to the scene of the probable homicide, the abandoned clubhouse for the golf driving range was finally demolished a few weeks ago after many months of serving as a squat for homeless people, even after a fire badly damaged it and the owners (who were going to build houses before the economy tanked) were forced to board it up.

The denizens of this area hang out next to the path, sometimes drinking from bottles hidden in paper sacks, or just sitting under the trees with bicycles or shopping carts parked nearby. Although some of them may sleep under the bushes and trees, I think most sleep in the encampment. Other than the bushes and trees, there is no shelter from rain. Some may go to shelters in bad weather, but most appear to be hanging out along the path no matter the season.

Going west toward Sebastopol, the homeless population drops considerably. With no nearby sevices, only a few people regularly camp along the trail. A tent surrounded by trash and belongs hides in a ditch filled with willows at one spot. An older woman often bikes by in the mornings with a few bottles of water and other items. When the rains begin, the tent’s occupant will move on, as will some of the people living near the Laguna de Santa Rosa at the edge of Sebastopol.

One of the individuals I see most often around the Sebastopol segment is an older man who wheels a dolly loaded with plastic tubs and with a variety of bags hanging off them. The weather has taken a toll on his face and feet (often clad in flip-flops) in the time since he came to town, likely making him look quite a bit older than his calendar age. I’ve met him at various locations along the trail between Llano Road to the east of town and Hurlbut Avenue to the north (a 3 mile range) and at all hours. On warmer days, I’ve often encountered him shirtless and shaving or brushing his teeth while standing on the bridge over the Laguna. During bad weather, he, like a few others, takes refuge in the Sebastopol Library, with his dolly parked outside by the bike rack.

A dozen or more individuals camp in wooded areas adjacent to the Laguna. While some come and go, several seem to be more or less permanent residents. They and their camps are mostly invisible to trail users because many of the camps are hidden deep the thickets of willow and blackberry lining the way. I’ve often been surprised by the sudden appearance of someone emerging from a small path hacked through the undergrowth. Sometimes trash — and recently, toilet paper and uncovered human excrement — joins the dog droppings near the edge of the pavement and the area around Calder Creek.

One other concern I’ve had is wildfire. We’ve had a pair of fires close to the Laguna in as many years. The most recent scorched about 1.5 acres a little ways south of the trail and I’ve cycled through thick campfire smoke several times as the weather has turned colder. I sent a letter to the Sebastopol City Council asking them to address these issues, but so far haven’t received any responses.