After months of tension managing growing homeless population, Petaluma getting more shelter resources

Petaluma’s homeless population grew 10% from last year, according to the 2020 count of residents without consistent housing.|

The colder temperatures make it difficult to keep a guitar tuned, so after Ron Stamp strummed a few sour notes he put his blue Fender down in frustration and lit a cigarette.

The 36-year-old Tampa native has been homeless in the Bay Area for five years. A potential job at an Emerald Triangle cannabis farm brought him out West, but Stamp said he was duped, robbed and stranded in San Francisco. The out-of-work musician keeps his spirits up, but said it’s been hard to find a job during the pandemic. He doesn’t want to stay in a local shelter, even as the weather gets colder.

“I just try to keep pushing until the next great thing (comes along),” Stamp said.

His campsite is one of several lining a stretch of the upper Petaluma River, located on undeveloped private land west of the fork with Lynch Creek. Some of the encampments here are extravagant, built into treetops or river embankments with constructed staircases, retaining walls and latrines. A boat is parked on one hillside, and signs of a makeshift transportation network dot the river banks.

The homeless population in Petaluma, Sonoma County’s second-largest city with about 62,000 residents, is growing, according to the latest census figures released last week. In recent years, in the absence of preventive measures, most government contact has been some form of police enforcement. Over the past month, that reality has inflamed tensions between activists and Petaluma officials after evictions were carried out at Steamer Landing Park, and at least four homeless individuals filed claims against the city.

The attention has revived questions about how the city, outreach groups and local service providers are managing Petaluma’s homeless population, and whether the current approach is effective.

An estimated 68 major camps exist in Petaluma, which is double the previous reported high in 2016, police said. Some in the outlying areas have gone undisturbed for years, said Officer Zilverio Rivera, who served on the Police Department’s homeless outreach services team before it was disbanded two years ago amid the worst staffing shortage in decades.

Yet there is renewed optimism from local officials that money from a wave of approved ballot measures could restore more proactive and persistent homeless outreach. That is coupled with new county efforts to identify and add new shelter options in Petaluma, and expand the area’s capacity.

“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said of the emerging resources. “Measure O doesn’t solve or eliminate homelessness. But it will get people housed and get us in that right direction at a quicker pace.”

Petaluma’s 296-person homeless population grew 10% from last year, according to the 2020 count of residents without consistent housing. However, the number of individuals in a shelter increased from 127 in 2019 to 163 when the survey was conducted in late February.

Overall, the south county, with about 600 people counted, saw a 25% uptick largely due to Rohnert Park’s ballooning homeless resident numbers, which almost doubled.

One of the most effective tools to addressing city homelessness was the HOST unit, which in 2018 had abated all 34 camps in Petaluma, at that time. A system of giving up to two weeks’ notice, making frequent visits with nonprofit partners and warning of potential arrest compelled many individuals to accept shelter, Rivera said.

"You have to provide incentive for people to take you up on services and treatment,“ he said. ”With the funding we’re supposed to be getting, we’re in a good place to make it happen (again).“

Without the dedicated unit, the city has turned to a one-year test program, the Downtown Streets Team, which since June has been employing homeless individuals to clean campsites, develop work skills and serve as another tool for outreach. Petaluma’s assistant city manager, Brian Cochran, said it’s been “wildly successful,” and expects the City Council to extend the program.

But many public safety, health and environmental issues have remained. The homeless community accounts for nearly a third of the Police Department’s calls for service, Chief Ken Savano said.

Warming fires have sparked brush fires in Petaluma and other parts of the county, and concerns about garbage and debris getting caught in the river tide and washing into the ocean have kept public safety officials on edge, Savano said.

Many of those issues converged last month when police evicted multiple camps along the McNear Peninsula, and issued several misdemeanor infractions. Advocacy groups, including the Tamalpais Equity Campaign and Porchlight Coalition, claimed Petaluma did not comply with the Martin v. Boise Supreme Court decision, which protects the right to sleep on public property if shelter space isn’t available.

Campers also were initially given contact sheets that had at least two incorrect phone numbers for service providers. In an email, City Manager Peggy Flynn said it was “unfortunate,” but has since been addressed and “will not occur again.”

City officials meet every Monday with the Committee on the Shelterless, Petaluma’s principal homeless services provider, to assess bed availability and discuss the status of specific camps, and if a sweep operation is in the works, Savano said.

The Mary Isaak Center, which nonprofit COTS operates, typically has 112 beds, but coronavirus protocols have limited the capacity to 80, said Jules Pelican, COTS director of programs. Still, about 30 beds are open at all times, she said.

To get a bed, individuals have to complete the intake process through the county’s coordinated entry system. The process can sometimes take several days to complete, which can complicate a police sweep when shelter may be needed on the spot.

“What’s frustrating and ultimately challenging is they can’t get in right then,” Pelican said. COTS also has an internal wait list that fluctuates in size, but is currently clear, she said.

Tamalpais Equity Campaign organizer Robbie Powelson is skeptical of the reported availability at COTS, and has criticized the tactics used by Petaluma police. His group, which lobbied for a sanctioned camp in Novato, spurred the four claims against Petaluma after the Steamer Landing evictions.

A homelessness prevention attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County confirmed the organization was contacted, but is not currently representing the equity campaign or any individuals. So far no lawsuits have been filed.

Powelson’s group has organized protests around the city in recent weeks, and last month pitched tents at city hall to raise awareness before they were arrested.

“They keep on claiming they have more than enough beds and people are refusing services,” Powelson said. “They’re trying to frame themselves as not doing what they’re doing.”

Monica Martella, 49, has been evicted by Petaluma police several times over the last three years. She works as a package handler, but even with steady income, the area’s high housing prices and upfront costs on a lease have been impossible to overcome, Martella said.

She slept in her car until it was impounded by police. Now back on the streets, often swept from one spot to the next, she said her interactions with local police often depend on the officer.

“Most of the officers, speech-wise, are nice,” Martella said. “But what they’re doing is taking away your basic need. They’re taking away your sleep and stressing you out ... and making you afraid to live your life because they’ll come again and again.”

Support for homelessness and public services at the ballot box earlier this month have injected optimism that there may be more resources in the years ahead.

Petaluma will collect an estimated $13.5 million annually thanks to Measure U, a 1-cent sales tax pitched as a vital tool to enhance city services and avoid massive cuts.

The priority for Petaluma police is decreasing response times, and Savano said the first step under Measure U is restoring 15 staff positions. But homeless outreach touches on many of the department’s core principles, he said, and is hopeful the HOST unit is among the first task forces brought back.

Additionally, the Petaluma Health Care District has identified homelessness as a spending priority for its use of the $52.6 million in proceeds from the sale of Petaluma Valley Hospital to operator NorCal HealthConnect.

The potential expansion of dedicated strike teams under Measure O, a countywide quarter-cent sales tax for new mental health and homeless services, could be another resource. Petaluma and other local law enforcement agencies are also looking at an innovative program that would dispatch unarmed officers trained for solely mental health crises.

“Having the ability to even talk about expanding resources, we’re grateful to have those conversations,” Savano said. “We have to do something (about homelessness). We know going forward we’re going to invest more in that.”

County officials also have begun looking for property in Petaluma to continue expanding the housing options in its growing network of shelters. Last week the state approved a $6 million grant that will allow the county to buy the Sebastopol Inn, adding 31 rooms to the agency’s stock of shelter options.

Petaluma would likely have options for more moderate income levels, Rabbitt said, which would help diversify the county’s options.

In the short term, the county has readied 10 trailers, acquired by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to house the most vulnerable homeless individuals in the coming months, Rabbitt said. COTS would likely oversee the site and provide treatment and services.

The biggest hurdle is finding a Petaluma location that has the hookups to support the trailers. The Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds is being explored as one option, but it would require utility construction in order to prepare the property.

Rabbitt said the fairgrounds would be a worthwhile location, and would be willing to use PG&E wildfire settlement funds to pay for the upgrades. The county is still early in the process, and a county spokesperson stressed that no site has been selected yet.

“This would be an opportunity to house people who need housing in a safe way, and also be an investment in infrastructure for the future,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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