Sonoma County modifies homeless parking program

  • Pineapple Piacamos settles in for the night in the back of his van at the RV park by the Sonoma County Fairgrounds so that he can safely park his vehicle there for the night Monday, February 3, 2014. Piacamos along with other homeless families with vehicles were a part of a safe parking program allowing them to stay the night with bathrooms, showers and warm food. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County is tweaking a novel program, launched amid last winter's freezing weather, that allows homeless people to spend the night in their cars at the county fairgrounds.

The safe parking program, which started Feb. 3 and served 130 vehicles through Tuesday, proved costly for the county and for the homeless, whose average monthly income per vehicle was $912, officials said.

The venture was also controversial among some residents near the fairgrounds, who decried the county's offer of overnight stays for the homeless in their Santa Rosa neighborhood.

A new concept — providing parking at scattered sites around the county, including church parking lots — addresses both issues and was approved Tuesday on a unanimous vote by the Board if Supervisors.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane hailed the fairgrounds parking program as a success, noting that 27 percent of the homeless who participated had never before received homeless services.

Among the people living in their cars are those "who at one point were solid, middle-class citizens," Zane said. The population includes seniors and the disabled.

A survey by Catholic Charities, which runs the program, found that 38 percent of the participants were homeless for the first time.

But the budgeted $90,953 three-month cost of the fairgrounds program works out to $363,812 a year, or roughly $1,000 a day, according to a Community Development Commission report to the supervisors.

There were never more than 37 vehicles at the fairgrounds, which had a capacity for 50 vehicles, and the average attendance was 18 vehicles, the report said.

The scattered sites program will cost $100,000 to $200,000 a year, community development manager Mark Krug said.

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