Sonoma County leaders have made clear they want the homeless people camping on a publicly-owned lot in southwest Santa Rosa to move — but not until an alternative spot has been designated.
The number of homeless campsites behind the Dollar Tree store on Sebastopol Road appeared to at least double last month — to 75 tents or more — after the city shut down encampments in the Highway 101 underpasses downtown. While officials until now have allowed the newcomers to remain on the county-owned site in Roseland, where a self-governed tent village took root about two years ago, they say everyone living on the property will eventually need to leave as the government prepares for the property’s long-planned redevelopment.
The county’s Community Development Commission, the owner of the Dollar Tree site, initially proposed requiring encampment residents to leave by Dec. 15 in order to make room for site work necessary before construction of the new development begins. However, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voiced concerns the deadline was too soon, a stance shared by activists staunchly opposed to the idea of clearing out the Roseland encampment without identifying another spot for people to relocate to.
“I’m not interested in issuing an eviction notice to this very fragile community … until we come up with some solutions,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, at last Tuesday’s meeting. “The consensus on this board is that the encampment is not tenable, but we need to have some humane alternatives.”
County officials have not yet revealed exactly where such an alternative location may be, but the Community Development Commission suggested potentially using a vacant publicly-owned property where homeless people could live in temporary structures — perhaps tents on a short-term basis — as advocates work to place them into long-term housing.
As of late last week, about 14 beds remained open at Sam Jones Hall, the largest shelter in the county, according to Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. Since the underpass encampments were shut down, Holmes said her organization placed 36 people who formerly lived there into shelter.
“We’re still working with people,” Holmes said. “It’s a long trust-building process … Some people are ready to go in that moment; some people need a little longer. We don’t give up, and we continue to offer them services, and then when they’re ready, we’ll provide it.”
But county officials don’t think they can get every tent village resident into a shelter, so they’re trying to identify another transitional living situation to avoid effectively shifting homeless people from one part of Santa Rosa or the unincorporated county to another.
“At least some of them would take a shelter bed, we believe, and we think that is part of the solution,” Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Community Development Commission, told supervisors. “But we probably also need to be able to accommodate people who do not want to come inside and who do not want to sleep on a cot or a mat on the floor in a shelter. And so whether that happens on a different piece of publicly owned property or we find some other location — I don’t have a proposed solution for you on that today.”
Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs agreed, noting the city was exploring possible new locations where homeless residents could sleep in cars, trailers or tents, perhaps, until receiving housing services. She emphasized, however, the city is not interested in authorizing the use of its parks for a sanctioned encampment.