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Homeless encampment in Napa

A photograph shared by a homeowner on Napa's Glenwood Drive shows the short distance between the backyard fence and a tent that was part of an encampment of homeless people near Napa Creek. The city cleared the cluster of at least a half-dozen tents in April, following complaints filed with police and code enforcement officers.

Starting last fall, two vacant lots flanking California Drive north of downtown became home to transients for nearly six months, according to Napa Police. Although the tents near Napa Creek were removed in April and their occupants have moved into shelters or other housing, the experience has left a sour taste for some nearby residents who say the city has acted too slowly to protect their homes.

“We have had items missing off our front porch, our mail has gone missing, and a neighbor’s son left his bike out on the front lawn and it was gone within 15 minutes,” said David Aten, whose backyard on Muller Drive abuts Napa Creek about three blocks southwest of where homeless people had been living.

While Napa Police had not linked the presence of the encampment to a crime uptick in the “alphabet streets” – the residential district bracketed by Jefferson Street to the east and Highway 29 on the west – Aten, a neighborhood resident since 2002, did not hesitate to connect it with what he called a spate of property crimes over the past two years.

A car break-in, a swiped fire pit and the theft of landscaping equipment are among the incidents Aten said he and his husband Guy Barstad have endured. They fit with reports from nearby residents of similar incidents, including break-ins and squatting in vacant homes, that are frequently shared on the neighborhood-focused Nextdoor social media platform.

Along with tents pitched on the empty California Boulevard lots, he said, “there were bikes, rakes, leaf blowers, things that go missing in the neighborhood – that’s where they end up.”

Aten called the complaints of property crimes symptomatic of understaffed law enforcement and called on Napa leaders to “be more mindful” of the safety of residents as well as tourists. “I’m pretty pissed off at the city for not funding code enforcement and the police department (more),” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me the city is taking the problem seriously.”

Despite such discontent, a Napa Police spokesperson described the level of property crimes in the alphabet-street area as being in line with the figures from recent years.

“I’m not seeing an anomaly that can be attributed to the homeless who were camping” near California and D street, Lt. Brian Campagna said earlier this month. Regular contacts with transients in the area, he added, “gives us the ability to look for stolen property attributed to this folks.”

An online LexisNexis community crime map indicates that Napa Police took four reports of residential burglaries and 19 for various types of theft during the year ending May 2, in an area bounded by Jefferson Street, Lincoln Avenue, Highway 29 and Cedar Avenue. Included in the theft total are reports of stolen bicycles, items taken from vehicles, and two grand theft reports from Jefferson Street and Muller Drive.

Police also responded to five vehicle burglary reports – all from Feb. 8 to the 27th – and six vandalism reports in the neighborhood.

For another neighborhood resident a few blocks north of Aten’s home, the presence of homeless people was literally as close as the other side of her fence – and a threat to the sense of comfort she had enjoyed at her home of two decades.

Just beyond the heavily wooded backyard of her house on Glenwood Drive, tents began appearing last year, numbering a half-dozen or more as spring approached, according to the woman, who declined to be identified by the Napa Valley Register for fear of retribution by those who lived in the encampment. Two calls to Napa Police for help eventually led to a visit by a code enforcement officer, but not an immediate eviction of the tent dwellers.

This is a serious situation,” the Glenwood Drive resident wrote in a March 11 email to City Council members, Napa Police leaders and City Manager Steve Potter.

“I do not feel safe. I do not feel I can go out into my back yard. I do not feel it is safe for my grandchildren to play in the yard that has made my house so popular with them over the years. Entertaining in my backyard has been one of my greatest pleasures, but that would now be impossible. And when the weather does turn warm and dry, it would not be unrealistic to expect dozens more tents to appear.”

“Please don’t let neglect and indifference to this problem result in something serious happening to my home or to me,” she wrote.

Finally, on April 16, city staff moved in to clear the two California Boulevard parcels, both of which are private property, Campagna reported, confirming the move followed complaints filed with both police and city code enforcement officers.

One, at 1701 D Street Alley, is the prospective site for the Napa Creek Condominiums, which the city approved in 2011 but has remained unbuilt as the land has passed through different owners.

“Turned out it was on private property, so we had to follow special rules to get (occupants) off the property,” said Brandon Gardner, Napa’s police liaison to the local homeless population. “Now it’s properly posted so we can enforce (no-trespassing rules) properly; it’s been cleared so there are no areas to hide.”

Some who had been staying in the encampment were reunited with family members, according to Gardner, while others agreed to stay in the South Napa Shelter on Gasser Drive and three people received housing through Abode Services, which runs assistance programs under contract with Napa city and county.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.