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Petaluma deals with illegal homeless camps amid recent transient deaths

  • Petaluma police officer Ed Esponda talks with Janet Espinoza at a homeless encampment on the Petaluma River, Wednesday Sept. 18, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Under different circumstances, the campsite along the Petaluma River banks would look fairly inviting.

A barbecue grill stands near a large tent, both under the shady canopy of a huge live oak tree. Plastic bins contain food and other supplies. Dog treats sit on a table. A large open barrel holds brooms to keep the walkways tidy.

But the site is illegal, a homeless encampment whose residents are trespassing on someone else's property. And just over a wall of blackberry brambles lie two large piles of trash, papers, discarded food containers and dirty clothes.

Petaluma Homeless Camps

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It's a hard life, whether by choice or by circumstance.

Three transients have died in Petaluma within the past month, prompting concerns from police and social service agencies about what, if anything, can be done.

The most recent death appears to be a suicide. The body of a 25-year-old man was found Wednesday afternoon under the D Street bridge.

Police Lt. Tim Lyons declined to release the apparent cause of death until the man's family can be notified. The man was known to police as a local who lived on the streets. Another homeless person found his body and alerted police.

The two other deaths — the skeletal remains of a woman found on McNear Peninsula on Aug. 16 and the body of a man found in Willow Brook Creek on the north end of town — don't appear to involve foul play or violence, Lyons said. Neither person has been identified yet.

“There is nothing suspicious about any of the deaths and there is no evidence to show they are in any way linked or knew each other in any way,” he said.

“The only theme is that they were all transients.”

The two earlier deaths could be natural causes, medical problems or simple old age, Lyons said.

While the three deaths so close in time may seem unusual, Mike Johnson of Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless said it is all too common.

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