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PD Editorial: Work to help homeless just starting

  • 1/26/2014: B8: Touring a site being proposed for overnight parking for homeless people at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds are, from left, Jackie Brittain, Linda Picton and Georgia Berland.

    PC: 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 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.

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