Sonoma County weighs new options for homeless

  • Georgia Berland, right, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, Linda R. Picton of the Dorthy Day Working Group of Occupy Santa Rosa, and Jackie Brittain representing the Safe Parking Committee of Homeless Action and member of Elder Advocates for Community Health (E.A.C.H.) walk through an old RV lot behind the Sonoma County Fairgrounds where a plan is proposed to allow homeless people to park up to 50 vehicles a night at the lot, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on January 24, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

The southern tip of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds would be made temporarily available for homeless people to sleep in their vehicles under an emergency plan that county supervisors will consider on Tuesday.

Separately, the supervisors will be asked to approve changes to county ordinances that would make it legal to sleep overnight in vehicles in unincorporated areas of the county. It is now illegal to do that for more than three hours.

The emergency plan, designed for the cold and, normally, rainy season, also includes funding for about 1,000 motel room vouchers to be used over the three-month period. It would cost $129,695.

The most recent census of homeless people in Sonoma County, in January 2013, found that of 4,300 people who are homeless countywide, 837 lived in 444 vehicles.

Advocates who have long argued that homeless people should be allowed to sleep in their cars welcomed the developments.

"People will be much safer all around," said Linda R. Picton of the Dorothy Day Working Group, which grew out of the 2012 Occupy movement and has pushed for fewer restrictions on where homeless people can sleep.

"It's a major step in the right direction; it's wonderful news," said Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless.

"It will allow people to sleep in their cars, which is in many cases the last protected place they have," she said. "Secondly, it doesn't criminalize people for being homeless."

The fairgrounds proposal, dubbed "safe vehicle parking," would run from Feb. 1 to March 30 and could be extended another month. It would make space for 50 vehicles in a large grassy area formerly used as an RV lot and located between Meda, Brookwood and Linwood avenues, south of the main fairgrounds property.

"I will definitely go check it out, definitely," said Alex Averbuck, a 1988 El Molino High School graduate who said he has lived in his 1995 Infiniti for a year, since his unemployment benefits ran out.

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