The Santa Rosa City Council struggled with but ultimately signed off on a plan Tuesday to clear out a longtime homeless encampment on city property while simultaneously offering extraordinary assistance to the approximately 50 people being displaced by the effort.
The City Council made the decision unanimously over the objections of several people who live on Homeless Hill and are resisting placement in the city’s soon-to-be-expanded homeless shelter.
“This is a huge experiment on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Adrienee Lauby, of the advocacy group Homeless Action.
Lauby called the notion that the city would force people from their encampment off Farmers Lane, some of whom have lived there for 15 years, and then have police issue tickets to those who refused to leave or returned “very, very harsh.”
Adrian Shader, 22, who knows Homeless Hill residents, also objected to the relocation, saying shelters aren’t suitable housing situations for some who would be displaced.
“This is not OK,” Shader said. “Criminalization is not the solution.”
But that and other critiques of the city’s action drew a pointed defense from Mayor Chris Coursey, who said the program was fundamentally an effort to help people in need.
“This is not an attack on anyone. This is not a criminalization of anyone,” Coursey said. “We have a pilot project here that is offering people shelter, offering people a variety of services. That’s not being harsh. It’s being humane.”
The decision authorizes a pilot project that has been in the works since the council set aside $600,000 for it several weeks ago. But just exactly what that money was meant to be used for quickly became a source of contention on the council, a dispute that City Manager Sean McGlynn likened to “trench warfare.”
Julie Combs said she clearly recalled setting aside money to add 50 beds to the city’s 138-bed Sam Jones Hall but never agreed to have it paired with a program to clear out an encampment. She also was chagrined that $100,000 of that money she thought they had set aside to preserve a safe parking program — which recently saw its funding cut by the county — wasn’t supported by the whole council.
A proposal Tuesday to have city study the parking program failed on a 3-3 vote. Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts, who runs an organization that provides services for the homeless, abstained.
The city’s initial plan for the Sam Jones expansion had been to place 25 people in the shelter’s gymnasium and integrate 25 other people into the dormitory area of the shelter.
It also called for hiring several people to beef up the shelter’s efforts to get people out of the shelter and into permanent housing situations with supportive services.
That plan envisioned hiring about three new shelter staff and three housing focused positions, including a housing locator, housing navigator, and housing stabilization case manager.
But Councilman Tom Schwedhelm argued that the mission of the whole shelter, all 188 beds, should be focused on finding people long-term housing.
He argued that this made the most sense under the “housing first” model of getting people into shelter as quickly as possible.
“Across the nation this is the direction it’s going, and its going that direction because its proven most effective,” Schwedhelm said.
The expansion of the “housing first” model to the entire shelter will cost $500,000 — the bulk of the money the council set aside for the Homeless Hill operation.
Another proposal from Combs, to establish a city-sanctioned homeless encampment, failed to advance.
The council also showed no interest in providing portable toilets and garbage cleanup for the other 43 encampments around the city.
Council members did, however, agree to have staff evaluate a risk mitigation program that could act like an insurance policy to give landlords confidence in renting to formerly homeless people.
In addition to expanding the Sam Jones shelter, the pilot program will provide homeless people will seek to do more to reconnect homeless people with family members or put them up in local hotels; remove the piles of debris Homeless Hill, at the intersection of Farmer’s Lane and Bennett Valley Road; fence the property off with “no trespassing” signs; and initiate regular police patrol to ensure people don’t return.
People staying on the property — slated for a future road project extending Farmers Lane south — have already been informed of the city’s plans to relocate residents, set to begin by the end of the month.
If successful, the city could take a similar approach to the Highway 101 underpasses downtown.
Those locations, offering some shelter from inclement weather and access to nearby homeless services, attract large numbers of homeless people, especially during the winter.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.