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Santa Rosa seeks reopening of armory shelter


Santa Rosa City Council members agreed Tuesday to pursue the reopening of the National Guard Armory as a homeless shelter this winter.

Freezing temperatures and a shortage of beds for the homeless prompted council members to ask staff members to contact the state to see if the armory can be put to use again as a temporary shelter.

The consensus came during a study session as the council reviewed the existing inventory of shelter beds, homeless services and affordable housing.

"We are demonstrating as a community we do respond," Mayor Scott Bartley said. "Yes, there's always more to do, but we do respond."

The armory was closed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for use by the National Guard, said Dave Gouin, the city's director of economic development and housing.

"It's a shame to have the facility just sitting there," Councilman Gary Wysocky said.

"Anything we can do to get people off the street -- there are families out there with small children," said Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, a recent new mother who cradled her baby during the meeting.

City officials agreed there is a need for more affordable housing to help people move out of emergency shelters.

The half-dozen homeless shelters in Santa Rosa, which have a total of 417 beds, are at capacity and waiting lists are long, Gouin said.

Compounding the problem are a lack of affordable housing units in the city and an overall apartment vacancy rate of just 1 percent.

People in shelters are waiting to get into affordable housing, which will free up beds in shelters. But with record-high rents, few people are able to do so. As a result, officials say, those living on the streets have even less ability to transition into housing.

A snapshot of the homeless population last winter in Santa Rosa revealed 670 in shelters or transitional beds and 1,700 living outside, said Jenny Abramson, a coordinator with the Sonoma County Housing Authority.

That means there were 2 1/2 times as many living outside as there are beds available, she said.

Each year, 30 people on average die on Sonoma County streets, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Since last Friday, six homeless people in Sonoma County were transported to the hospital for hypothermia, or exposure to the cold, Abramson said.

"It's a crisis. I think you know it," David Grabill of the Housing Advocacy Group said. "Hundreds and hundreds are out there freezing and getting sick."

He said Section 8 assistance for low-income households has waiting lists of between five and 10 years.

"We have to provide more shelter beds," he said.

Grabill and other housing advocates said Assembly Bill 391 is a key state initiative that could provide more funds for affordable housing. It would add a $75 fee on recordable real estate documents.

With the recent cold snap, Abramson said, shelter providers were able to expand some capacity, or send some clients to churches temporarily converted to shelters.

But she told the council it is most effective for the city to put its resources into affordable housing.

"The real solution is building affordable housing, and it's not cheap," Councilman Jake Ours said.

Catholic Charities said the average stay at its Samuel Jones shelter is 44 days, but people are staying longer than they need to, because even though they qualify for affordable housing programs, none is available.

City officials said the problem has been exacerbated by a drying up of redevelopment money since the state ended that funding source.

There are five affordable housing projects with a total of 304 units in Santa Rosa that have entitlements to go ahead with construction, but there is not sufficient funding to proceed.

Councilwoman Julie Combs noted that the city needs an additional 3,200 affordable units, with a little less than half of those for "rapid re-housing" a program that provides rent subsidies and rental deposits.

"How do we fill the gap until we get there?" she said, adding that the city may need to relax its prohibition against sleeping in cars.

Some homeless advocates suggested there should be specific designated places where camping is permitted, such as in designated parking lots, similar to what Santa Barbara allows.

For the time being, there are ways for members of the public to help. Catholic Charities officials said there is a need for large-size jackets, sleeping bags, socks, gloves and propane for heaters.

Items can be dropped off at the Homeless Services Center at 600 Morgan St. or the family shelter at 465 A St.