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Santa Rosa declared a homeless emergency Tuesday, a move council members said they hoped would give the city the ability to act swiftly to address the crisis and rally public support for long-term solutions.

While some questioned whether the move was merely symbolic, Councilmember Ernesto Olivares said he felt the declarations made by the council were substantial.

“It is an issue that affects every single person in our community,” Olivares said. “I think what we’re doing here is making a very strong statement to our community that we need their help, too.”

The council took three distinct but related steps Tuesday.

It declared a shelter crisis, which makes it easier for the city to waive certain health and safety and zoning rules if it wants to use public property to create additional shelter for the homeless.

It also declared that the level of homelessness constituted a local emergency, comparable to the extreme safety issues created by a natural disaster. The step allows the city to lift similar zoning or public safety restrictions on private property owners — such as churches — seeking to serve the homeless.

And the third move was to ask Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on the homelessness issue statewide, a move some hoped could open the door to state funding to combat the problem.

City staff noted that there were nearly 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County, according to this year’s annual census, nearly 1,900 of whom live in the Santa Rosa area and more than 1,200 of whom have no shelter.

The council’s decisions were applauded by homeless advocates, who have been working to keep the plight of the homeless in front of city leaders for years.

Adrainne Lauby, a member of Homeless Action who regularly urges the council to do more to help the city’s shelterless population, prodded the city to act.

“If we had 3,000 people who were homeless because of a flood or a fire, we would do something about it,” Lauby said.

But what exactly the city will do next remains unclear.

Mayor John Sawyer said he felt the city was already addressing homelessness urgently, and worried that declaring an emergency would elevate it to the city’s single most important issue.

“I find myself wondering whether it’s really an important step, whether it’s a necessary step,” Sawyer said.

Absent some specific plan to address the problem, Sawyer said he was concerned that declaring an emergency was “setting up the community for disappointment.”

But his colleagues urged him to see the declarations as a broader call to action, or as Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm called it “all hands on deck.”

He likened it to when the city came together more than a decade ago to grapple with its gang problem.

“Since we don’t know what the solutions are yet, let’s remove as many of the barriers as we can right now,” Schwedhelm said.

Councilwoman Julie Combs gave an example of how, if the city wanted to use its buildings or properties to house people, it might be allowed to bring in portable toilets, where current zoning might either not allow it or require lengthy public processes.

“It allows us to take an action and then take the time to work out other issues with regards to zoning,” Combs said.

One program cited as potentially benefiting from the actions was the Community Homeless Assistance Program, which could be extended year-round. The program eases restrictions on private property where owners want to participate in a safe parking program, which allows homeless people to sleep in their vehicles during the rainy season in specific locations in the city.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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