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Fifty new beds arrived at Santa Rosa’s homeless shelter Friday, marking the start of the city’s latest experiment in addressing its homeless crisis.

Half a dozen volunteers and employees of Catholic Charities helped unload a large delivery truck and assemble several new bunk beds in the gymnasium of Sam Jones Hall.

“It’s exciting,” said Brendan Ward, the assistant director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, during a break from hauling heavy boxes into the Finley Avenue shelter. “We’re here to house people and to provide opportunities for people to get housed.”

At the same time, however, Ward acknowledged some “angst” over how the shelter will operate with a 36 percent increase in beds in the same building footprint. The city has let people sleep on cots and mats on the gymnasium floor during winter months for years, but this is different.

The city is spending $500,000 to expand the shelter from 138 to 188 beds year-round and boost its staff and budget to do a better job of helping homeless people find permanent housing.

This “housing first” approach has been the subject of great debate in the community for several months. The expanded shelter and its new focus on finding housing will put this strategic shift in homeless policy to the test.

“After all this time planning and researching, now we’re going to be able to execute and hopefully prove this model in Santa Rosa,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

The city is expanding the shelter in conjunction with efforts to clean up areas most heavily affected by the homeless population, including Homeless Hill, a large encampment off Bennett Valley Road, and the Highway 101 overpasses downtown, all of which have sparked considerable complaints from neighbors.

The new beds mean current residents of Homeless Hill will have a safe place to go before the city clears out the longtime encampment, which is expected to take place this month.

The decision to remove people from the hillside, located on city property long eyed for a future extension of Farmer’s Lane, followed complaints from neighbors and liability concerns on the part of the city, including fire danger on the dry hillside.

It’s unclear how many people from Homeless Hill will take advantage of the new beds. Since renewed efforts urging people to move into the shelter began about two weeks ago, nine have taken the city up on the offer, Holmes said. Two have found permanent housing, she said.

About half the new bunk beds will be set up in the dormitory, and the other half will go in the gymnasium.

Additional storage has been added in anticipation of people needing storage space. The rules about pets have also been relaxed, with donated kennels allowing people to sleep with their animals beside them, Holmes said.

Gregory Fearon, volunteered unloading the beds Friday, said he supports the city’s increased spending on homeless services and its new focus on getting people into permanent housing.

Fearon, a local homeless advocate, worries that the expanded shelter will fill up quickly.

And he wonders whether continuing to clear other encampments around the city will leave people with nowhere to go, potentially raising “constitutional” concerns for the city.

Holmes understands such concerns, but said a lot of thought has gone into the policy shift and she hopes people give it a chance to work.

“We haven’t gone about this in a vacuum,” she said.

“We’re grounding our decisions in data and we’re following other communities that have done this successfully.”

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

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