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The final step of an emergency plan to provide shelter for the homeless is beginning just as Sonoma County's weather takes a wintry turn.

On Monday for the first time, a parking area at the southern tip of the county fairgrounds was available for homeless people to park their vehicles for the night. It can accommodate up to 50 vehicles, and Catholic Charities of the diocese of Santa Rosa will provide hot meals and other services to those sleeping there.

"It's better than me being on the streets," said Justine Chandler, 58, who has been living in a van for the past three years. "It's safe and clean."

She was one of the first homeless people to take advantage of the new service Monday night.

"I was an alcoholic for years," she said of her path to homelessness. "I lost everything. I moved to Santa Rosa from the Bay Area, I quit drinking."

But on Monday she and her companion Pershing John "Pineapple" Diacamos, a longtime homeless Vietnam veteran, along with their Chihuaha "Baby Girl," were enjoying being able to park in a spot all night in his 1997 Ford van.

"The cops can't bother you," Diacamos, 62, said. "Plus here there are showers, bathrooms."

The couple was among a handful that showed up in the first hour Monday night, but organizers expect that as word gets out the lot will fill to capacity in a couple weeks.

"I'm out of favors. I'm out of friends. I'm out of money," is how Frederick Helmke, 55, described his situation.

He had run out of places to park his aged motorhome.

"I was first here," he said of his arrival Monday night. "I'm wagging my tail."

He describing how difficult it can be to find a place to park when you are on the street.

"You never stay more than a day or two. You don't attract attention," he said. "Every day you worry about a ticket you have no money to pay and that you'll end up in jail."

The fairgrounds parking arrangement is part of an effort that homeless advocates around the county initiated in December as temperatures dipped to record-breaking lows and existing shelters found themselves brimming over their capacity.

Many shelters rolled out additional cots on their floors and churches opened their doors, but still there was not enough room for everyone who needed it, said Mark Krug, manager of community development for the county.

Starting around Christmas, Catholic Charities and the City of Santa Rosa began expanding the number of beds at the Samuel Jones Hall shelter in southwest Santa Rosa. The added beds have been full in recent weeks, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

In early January, the Board of Supervisors approved nearly $180,000 to open night-time warming stations and expand capacity at shelters in Santa Rosa and Guerneville, among other measures. Most recently, on Jan. 28, the Board of Supervisors approved an additional $141,000 to fund about 1,000 motel vouchers for those who are particularly vulnerable to the cold, and the creation of the "safe parking" program at the fairgrounds.

The measures come as it's finally beginning to feel like winter in Sonoma County. Sunday ushered in wet weather along with cold temperatures that are expected to last through the week.

Monday and Tuesday night's lows were predicted to be at or below freezing, said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. Lows will warm to the high-30s on Thursday morning, when there's a small chance of rain, but conditions could still be chilling, Benjamin said.

"There's definitely still a need" for more shelter, Holmes said Monday. Many of those who can't get a bed gather at warming stations, she said. Others spend the night walking the streets to stay warm.

Yet others, around 830 of the county's more than 4,000 homeless, choose to sleep in their cars, according to a census conducted last January. But until the Jan. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting, it was illegal to do so in much of the county. At that point, the board voted to decriminalize car camping in many unincorporated areas as well as provide a sanctioned place for people to sleep in their vehicles through the safe parking program.

The program is set to run through March 31, with the option of extending it another month if needed.

If the county decides to extend the program it will have to find a new location, said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

In addition to being able to park for the night, people have access to services like case management and benefits assessments, said Holmes.

There are sleeping bags, blankets and socks available along with patio heaters.

Clients will be able to stay there from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night and will have to pre-register with Catholic Charities on Morgan Street. An employee will be at the fairgrounds site overnight to supervise.

The site is located between Meda, Brookwood and Linwood Avenues.

It is surrounded by homes and residents there have expressed concern about safety and the lack of input they had in the site's selection. County officials responded that they could not begin outreach until a site was chosen, which only happened at the board's Jan. 28 meeting.

Zane said she also wished more outreach was possible before the site was chosen but that the urgency of the situation required the board to quickly decide on a spot.

Still, Betsy Corbin, who lives across from the parking area on Meda Avenue, said she and several other neighbors she'd spoken with felt that the decision was being forced upon them.

"We feel this is being crammed down our throats," she said.

To address neighbors' concerns, county officials, along with Catholic Charities, is canvassing the neighborhoods with information about the program.

They're also holding a meeting Wednesday night. It will start at 6 p.m. at the Showcase Cafe on the fairgrounds. Zane, who called for the meeting, will be there.

"We're hoping that people will come out with their concerns but be open minded that these are families who have fallen on hard times," Zane said. "This is a temporary yet very critical solution to a problem we're having, which is people being affected by the cold."

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@<QA0>

pressdemocrat.com; on Twitter at @JamieHansen. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@press<QA0>

democrat.com.