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The lobby of Santa Rosa’s post office will no longer be open 24 hours a day for mail retrieval due to safety and security concerns, because the homeless have taken to sleeping there overnight.

People bedding down have created unsanitary conditions and trash, and packages have been stolen from postal boxes, according to postal officials.

Complaints from customers too frightened to get their mail, reports of aggressive panhandling in the lobby and homeless people refusing to vacate the premises prompted the change in hours at the main Santa Rosa office on Second Street, Coddingtown station, Montgomery Village and Roseland.

“While we sympathize with homeless people, we can’t have them use our lobbies as a hotel,” said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Augustine Ruiz, of the San Jose office.

Beginning Jan. 14, the new hours at the main Santa Rosa office will be from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays; 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; and closed entirely on Sundays and holidays.

The other post offices will close even earlier, by 6 p.m weekdays, although those hours won’t go into effect until Jan. 21 at Coddingtown and Roseland.

For night owls, people who work odd hours, or those seeking to avoid a crowd, the 24-hour access to postal boxes is convenient, as is a self-service kiosk for buying stamps and taking care of shipping needs.

But the buildings also have become a de facto shelter of sorts for the homeless, especially as the weather began to turn cold and wet in November.

Postal officials said there has been evidence of drug and alcohol use in the form of broken bottles and needles, and some have used the lobbies to urinate and worse. Employees have had to call police after getting verbal threats from the homeless they ask them to leave, Ruiz said.

There have been other post offices around the state and country that have ended 24-hour access to their lobbies as a result of transients using them to sleep and cause other problems.

Napa and Berkeley in the Bay Area, and Duarte in Los Angeles County, are among the post offices that recently ended overnight lobby access for the same reason, as well as Denver and Boulder in Colorado, and Beverly, Massachusetts. To advocates for the homeless, it shows the need for more affordable housing, shelter space and resources.

“Overall there are not enough beds,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. “There are 3,000 homeless (in Sonoma County) any given night and only 1,000 shelter beds.”

“This is an emergency. People are dying, getting physically sick, because human need is not being met,” she said.

The decision to no longer have postal lobbies open 24 hours a day comes as winter tightens its grip on Northern California and homeless shelters are at capacity in Santa Rosa.

The homeless in Santa Rosa have become increasingly visible, camping under several freeway overpasses with shopping carts and cardboard structures sometimes spilling off the sidewalks and into the streets.

Victoria Denning of Santa Rosa, who commutes to a job in Daly City and often goes to her post office box in downtown Santa Rosa late at night, said she has seen homeless sleeping there many times, but doesn’t feel particularly threatened.

“I do see more women going in there as well as men,” she said.

Earlier this week, she said there were already five people sleeping on the floor before 8 p.m. “and one guy coming in with two suitcases worth of stuff.”

She said she’s smelled urine in the lobby and seen food strewn on the floor.

Denning expressed more concern about where the homeless will go at night, rather than from the inconvenience of not being able to access her post office box late at night.

“It’s a sad situation,” she said. “The city needs to do something for the homeless.”

Santa Rosa has allocated nearly $2 million to address homelessness, including to help pay for a mobile shower trailer, add emergency shelter space and expand the ranks of the homeless outreach team. But the problem still defies a solution.

Holmes said the 138-bed Samuel L. Jones shelter for single adults is at capacity, and there are 80 to 120 individuals on a waiting list that is a year old. Some of those on the waiting list are in a 50-bed winter shelter that operates from November to March. The family shelter Catholic Charities operates in downtown Santa Rosa is also full, with a waiting list of 50 to 60 families, she said.

“This has been one of the hardest winters, very rainy and cold,” she said, adding that a warming station for the homeless at the drop-in center on Morgan Street has already been activated more times this winter than any of the past three winters, even though the cold season is far from over.

She said up to 75 individuals come there sometimes to stay a few hours or through the night.

“It’s a complex social issue,” she said. “They’re already physically vulnerable. You add cold and rain, it’s definitely life threatening,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story contains updated information on the new hours that will go into effect Jan. 21 at the three smaller post offices.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.