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Santa Rosa’s first-ever managed homeless camp takes in first residents

Sixty-eight tents reserved for local homeless residents rustled in the afternoon breeze Monday outside the Finley Community Center, where Santa Rosa's first managed homeless encampment opened to its initial 12 residents.

The site, which can safely accommodate up to about 140 people, is expected to be full by Friday, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which is overseeing the camp.

“There are many that are actually looking forward to some of the stability that it's going to provide and some of the safety,” Holmes said. “The No.1 goal is to provide safety during this COVID-19 health crisis.”

The managed homeless encampment off West College Avenue in west Santa Rosa is an unprecedented step for city officials struggling to confront two unwieldy public health crises: the relatively new coronavirus pandemic and the city's entrenched homelessness problem, which months ago was symbolized by a sprawling 250-person camp on the Joe Rodota Trail.

Amid prolonged outcry from neighbors and trail users, the county spent more than $12 million to clear that settlement in late January and relocate many of its residents, including about 60 who were settled in the county's first-ever sanctioned camp off Highway 12 near Oakmont.

But new, dense clusters of homeless camps have again cropped up, mostly across downtown, where people have set up more than 100 tents, vehicles and other makeshift shelters along Highway 101 underpasses and nearby parking lots, according to a May 11 city survey.

Officials said it likely represented an increase since the pandemic emptied downtown and closed parks for more than a month.

The coronavirus threat prompted the city into quicker action this month and last. Officials first worked to place more than 70 people living at the Sam Jones shelter and in encampments into rooms at the Sandman Motel before pivoting to the Finley site, which is meant to take in those living under Highway 101 and near Doyle Park. The city expects to pay about $134,000 per month as long as the managed camp is open.

“I think we have to be proactive and try to get them limited, by moving them to Finley or moving them somewhere,” said Councilman Dick Dowd, who with Mayor Tom Schwedhelm approved a staff proposal to use the Finley site.

The decision never went before the full City Council and had no formal public airing before it was announced. County supervisors and Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, were surprised last week by the city's plan.

Under normal circumstances, they would have been apprised of the city's move, Dowd said, but the public health emergency posed by the coronavirus pandemic motivated the city to prioritize speed, he said.

“If you can save some lives, that's worth moving through” without the normal public participation process, Dowd said. He added that he had received 50 to 100 emails from people who were upset about the city's establishment of the Finley site.

In addition to the downtown clusters, an additional 30 tents have been erected in city parks and about 60 vehicles and RVs used as living quarters are parked in the Corporate Center Parkway area in the city's southwest, according to the city.

Dowd acknowledged that many camped out on public ground are likely to remain where they are. The city can't force their relocation to Finley or elsewhere because of a federal court order that limits enforcement of local illegal encampments and federal guidelines that discourage breaking up encampments during the pandemic to avoid spreading COVID-19.

As a result, encampments like those underneath Highway 101 are likely here to stay indefinitely, Dowd said.

“Hopefully you see less, but I expect you'll see some, and for some significant time,” he said. “With the rules in place right now … there's nothing that the city can do without providing them shelter someplace else, and then they, the resident, has to accept it.”

The shelter site at Finley occupies 24,600 square feet of space on the east side of the community center, which has been closed since March.

A dozen portable restrooms and two hand-washing stations line one side of the site. A shower trailer, laundry and food services, and case management and housing- related services also will be provided on site, Holmes said.

The site's occupants and their tents will be fenced in and be overseen by 24-hour security. Campers will have to abide by an 8 p.m. curfew; will be limited in receiving visitors in a separate area outside the camp; and will not be allowed to possess drugs and alcohol on the premises. Also, the Santa Rosa Police Department has indicated it plans to increase patrols in the area of the community center.

Residents will be able to stay indefinitely, as the Finley site's existence is tied to Sonoma County's stay-at-home order. Typically, shelters like Sam Jones Hall in southwest Santa Rosa allow people to stay for up to six months, though Holmes noted that limit is being relaxed due to the pandemic.

However, people will be forced to leave if their behavior causes a health or safety concern, Holmes said. Campers also will forfeit their spot if they are gone for two nights in a row without communicating with Catholic Charities, she said.

The rules of the site may change as the encampment fills out and develops, Holmes said.

“This is the first time our community is venturing into this,” she said, “so there's going to be a lot of lessons learned.”

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