By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Santa Rosa woman’s visit to poverty-wracked India has led to a lawsuit that has frozen Sonoma County’s ordinance preventing people from sleeping in their cars.
Hollie Clausen visited India in 2012 and was so struck by the level of homelessness on the Asian subcontinent that she sued the county and the city of Santa Rosa when she returned to stop policies she said unfairly affect the poor.
“In India, there’s millions of people everywhere, and they have nowhere to go,” Clausen said. “We should be lucky enough that people may have that one last possession, their car.”
The 2007 Healdsburg High School graduate won a small victory last week when Sheriff Steve Freitas agreed to stop issuing citations in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County while revisions are considered.
Santa Rosa officials are expected to do the same. City Attorney Caroline Fowler confirmed talks are ongoing with police Chief Tom Schwedhelm to stop enforcing the two-hour maximum for occupying a vehicle within the city limits while amendments are proposed.
That’s good news to Clausen, who believes the two policies should be struck down to protect the rights of homeless people.
“It doesn’t take much for people to appreciate if you don’t have a house, your next best option is your car,” said Clausen’s father, Santa Rosa attorney Mark T. Clausen, who helped file the suit in January.
The city and county have had laws prohibiting camping on the books for years. Santa Rosa first adopted its policy in 1994, and the county followed suit in 2002.
They were controversial at the time, Clausen said, but were forgotten by the public.
In county areas, it is illegal to inhabit a vehicle, camper, trailer or boat on a public street, on an alleyway or in a private common area for more than three hours. The city’s ordinance is essentially the same, only it limits occupancy to two hours.
Violators can be subject to tickets and fines starting at $100.
Hollie Clausen, 24, who is not homeless and was not cited, sued under a provision that allows taxpayers to bring litigation. Her mother, Mary Clausen, is a former board member for The Living Room, a shelter that provides housing for women and children.
“They’re parking somewhere, just trying to get by for the night until they get that job or get that loan,” Hollie Clausen said. “But it’s looked down upon, like they’re somebody that’s not worthy of getting the help that’s needed. If you’re down to the point where you only have your car to sleep in, why is that an issue?”
Clausen named several grounds to her suit. First, she said state vehicle code doesn’t prohibit the activity, so local laws can’t ban it. Also, she said the policies are unconstitutional in that they prevent homeless people from being free to remain in one place that is safe for them.
Mark Clausen said law enforcement’s contention that they don’t really enforce the laws and haven’t given out tickets is a sham. He said officers use them as a hammer over the heads of people to get them to move along or else receive a ticket.
“If they are not breaking the law, they should be left alone,” Mark Clausen said.
But supporters of the camping ban have said they want to limit what they consider trespassing and loitering in neighborhoods.
Freitas said it’s an infrequent complaint but one he does hear. He said county officials will work on proposed changes to the ordinance before bringing it to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing and adoption.
That could take at least two months, Deputy County Counsel Anne Keck said. It is too soon to say what the changes would be, if any, she said.
Santa Rosa also has made no decision about amending the existing policy, Fowler said. She suggested the issue could come back to the City Council in the next several months.
In the meantime, the sheriff has agreed to a temporary moratorium. “We’re going to stop enforcing that special section,” Freitas said. “We still don’t want people living in their vehicles.”
Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or email@example.com.