When it comes to providing homeless services, compassion does not mean adherence to the status quo. The kindest thing to do often can be the hardest especially when it involves relocating individuals who have found a home off the grid and are reluctant to move.
This was demonstrated last week when the Santa Rosa City Council voted unanimously to clear out a longtime encampment located on the hillside above the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road. The city has identified 44 homeless encampments around the community, and this is one of the largest with some 50 residents, some who have been there for more than 15 years.
The city has been understandably concerned about the fire dangers from the tent encampment and other liability issues. It reached a point that crews were dispatched a few weeks ago to create fire breaks to protect the adjacent neighborhood. Neighbors say small fires have occurred near the camp. If one got out of control, the impacts could be devastating.
Staying there was not a long-term option anyway. The city-owned property eventually will become part of the Farmers Lane extension connecting to Kawana Springs Road and Yolanda Avenue to the south.
The City Council had little choice but to take action. But the council deserves credit for not clearing out the camp in isolation, which may have been the approach in years past. The city will be going to great lengths to make sure the individuals living there have some place to go.
The council has decided to reopen a 50-bed shelter in the gymnasium of the 138-bed Sam Jones Hall in southwest Santa Rosa. The main shelter is already at capacity with some 200 people, so the reopening of the gym, which has largely been used as a winter shelter and was closed just three months ago, will provide some needed space for newcomers.
In addition, the City Council committed itself to other efforts as part of its “housing first” strategy to helping unsheltered individuals find permanent housing. The council has dedicated $600,000 to help with the effort.
But the council missed an opportunity by not setting aside some of those funds to help with the safe-parking program, by Catholic Charities, which allows those who have a vehicle a safe place to pull over for the night. Those participating in the safe-parking program have access to bathrooms and services by Catholic Charities. The program has been successful, but it suffered a major blow when it lost nearly $600,000 in California Emergency Solutions Grant funds last year. Catholic Charities was able to raise $200,000 and Sonoma County chipped $400,000 to help the program through this year. But the county was not able to contribute this year.
No, keeping people in their cars is not the same has helping them find permanent housing. But many of these individuals are people who either through the loss of a job or other misfortune have recently fallen into the ranks of the unsheltered. Having transportation, in many ways, will help make the path back to permanent housing. Assisting them early on may, at the least, keep Santa Rosa’s homelessness problem from getting worse.
That aside, we commend the City Council for their targeted efforts to confront the issue of homelessness. Getting them into permanent housing is and should be the top priority. Allowing them to stay in hillside encampments that pose fire risks and other concerns is not.