The lives of Sonoma County's homeless just got a little less burdensome thanks to some key votes by the Board of Supervisors last week. Supervisors approved a series of steps including:

Authorization of $50,000 for the purchase of about 1,000 hotel vouchers to be given to agencies and shelters. The goal is to get these vouchers in the hands of parents with young children, people with medical issues that make them particularly vulnerable to cold weather and outdoor living and those who may have other unique difficulties in finding a place to stay at night.

Altering the county's ordinance to allow camping in cars. Under previous rules, people were prohibited from spending three or more consecutive hours "in a single or nearby location" in a vehicle for the purposes of cooking, eating, cleaning, resting, recreating and/or sleeping. Recently, the city of Santa Rosa changed its rules to allow overnight camping in cars, and now the county has wisely followed suit.

Changing anti-loitering provisions of county rules to have them less focused on sleeping and more on activities that block the flow of pedestrian traffic or access to buildings.

The overall purpose of the changes is to ease up on the homeless and to decriminalize conduct that doesn't really have an impact on public safety. That's both sensible and humane, particularly given that recent census figures show that Sonoma County's homeless population has risen sharply in recent years. A census from a year ago found 4,300 homeless people in Sonoma County, including 837 who were living in vehicles.

But nothing the county did last week was more critical than its last action -#8212; approving $91,000 to create a seasonal "safe parking" program for the homeless at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. This area, which was scheduled to open this weekend and would only be open during winter months, would accommodate up to 50 vehicles and provide occupants with bathrooms, hot showers and a meal.

Managed by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the program is targeted for a parking area south of Aston and Linwood avenues, between Meda and Brookwood avenues. The area will be open from 8 p.m. to about 8 a.m.

Those who are uneasy about these changes can rest assured that they don't allow car camping everywhere. It will still be prohibited in parks, for example, and other areas where overnight stays are prohibited. But in terms of addressing the unseen problems of rising homelessness in Sonoma County and elsewhere, they are a needed step in the right direction.

<b>HOMELESSNESS FORUM</b>: Join PressDemocrat Executive Editor Catherine Barnett and Editorial Director Paul Gullixson as they moderate a panel discussion with community leaders and stakeholders on the issue of rising homelessness in Sonoma County. The forum, "Lost in Paradise," will be held on Feb. 12 at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, from 5 to 7 p.m.