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Church’s proposed homeless encampment stirs passions in Santa Rosa

On Tuesday nights, members of the First United Methodist Church break bread with more than 100 people, most of whom are homeless.

At an event called Spirit Café, they share a meal in Fellowship Hall on the church’s Montgomery Drive campus, learn about their guests’ lives and challenges, and pray together.

And when it’s over, they watch as these poor people, many of whom they consider friends, shuffle or ride off into the night.

The experience of getting to know homeless people as individuals instead of just as a category has inspired church members to want to do more.

“It has put a new face on homelessness for us,” said pastor Blake Busick. “And it has caused us to think differently about what we’re trying to do and why.”

The church has participated in Redwood Gospel Mission’s nomadic shelter program, which allows groups of homeless people to sleep in different church facilities overnight.

They’ve let a few homeless people sleep in their cars in the parking lot of their Giffen Avenue church off Stony Point Road, through the Safe Parking program run by Catholic Charities.

Now they want to go further by establishing a place on that 7-acre property where up to 20 homeless people could camp, cook and store their stuff while they wait for more permanent housing.

But that proposal goes too far for some neighbors, who turned out in force at a community meeting recently to oppose the plan.

“The place was packed,” said neighbor Herb Dickerson, recalling the recent community meeting at the church. “Everyone was absolutely infuriated about the thing.”

Parents raised fears about the safety of their children who attend the neighboring Robert L. Stevens School. Immediate neighbors worried about noises, cooking smells and the unsightliness of tents in a field. And assurances that campers would be pre-screened and the program well managed by Catholic Charities seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“If they go through with this, this is a hill we’re all willing to die on,” Dickerson said.

Stepping forward to help

The First United Methodist Church is the first organization to step forward to participate in Santa Rosa’s newly expanded Community Homeless Assistance Program, or CHAP.

As such, the fate of its proposal could have huge implications for the success of the city’s overall strategy of encouraging a communitywide solution to the homelessness problem.

After declaring a homeless emergency in August, the City Council used its new powers in October to expand the CHAP program, bypassing the six to nine months of public process that would normally have been required.

The expanded program allows churches, granges, Moose lodges or any other group with property considered a “meeting facility” to offer a range of services to the homeless that wouldn’t normally be allowed under zoning rules for such properties.

These uses include allowing people to sleep in their cars overnight, camp in tents and take shelter indoors overnight, all under specific conditions. For example, indoor shelters need fire inspections. Campsites must be shielded from view by fencing and open fires are not allowed. The program guidelines also allow groups to offer property storage services, and for people to use portable bathrooms and bathrooms inside buildings.

The city still plans to go through the public process to codify the changes to the zoning code, which would need approval from the council’s homeless policy subcommittee, the Planning Commission, and City Council itself.

But when the council passed the CHAP expansion in October, there was no public mention of the Stony Point Road location. It was, in essence, a theoretical program.

First United Methodist Church officials had been talking to the city for months, however, about how the program could be expanded.

Church leaders were approached in April by organizers of Camp Michela, the tent village that began as a protest on Sonoma County Water Agency property and now is located along the Joe Rodota Trail behind the Dollar Tree store in Roseland. The camp has sheltered about 20 people for more than a year.

Organizers were looking for a new home, and asked the church if they’d welcome the camp at the Stony Point Road site.

The church ultimately rejected the idea, but it spurred a lively debate among church leaders and members of the church’s Homeless Ministry Task Force. They decided to continue pursuing the camp idea, but only if it were legalized by the city, Busick said.

Once that happened, the church submitted its request to install campsites or huts for up to 20 people in the southeast corner of the property. The area, which is behind an empty building that once housed the church’s day care center, has easy access to power and city water.

Fire code regulations made it challenging to utilize the mobile huts being built on another part of the property by retiree Harold Wallin. So the current plan envisions tent sites, possibly platforms connected by gravel paths to make navigating the soggy field more manageable, said John Creager, a member of the church’s task force.

City requires notification

The city requires groups participating in CHAP to notify neighbors of their plans. But here is where the delicate process of educating people about the church’s intentions drifted.

The city’s guidelines only require notification of the “immediately surrounding neighborhood,” defined as “not less than a 300-foot radius.”

Creager said the church tried to reach everyone within a few blocks of the site. But Dickerson, whose property backs up to the opposite end of the property, says he received no notice and neither did two of his neighbors. And Creager acknowledged that the closest neighbors, those in the Northpoint Village Apartments immediately to the south, may not have received notices.

Not wanting to trespass, volunteers did not leave notices of a community meeting at individual apartments but rather took them to the office of the 110-unit affordable housing complex.

“I don’t think we went deep enough into the neighborhoods,” Creager conceded.

Of the approximately 30 people who came to the first community meeting, fewer than 10 lived in the neighborhood, Creager said.

Nevertheless word was getting out, and by the time people got to the latest community meeting, Nov. 30, the information void had been filled with fear.

“Their concerns are who is going to be staying there, what types of background checks will there be, and is my little girl going to be safe out front?” said Robert Lee, resident manager of the Northpoint Village Apartments.

Janet McKenna, who walks her 6-year-old grandson home from the neighboring school most days, said she has great sympathy for the homeless, but called it “gross negligence” to put people with troubled backgrounds so close to an elementary school.

“Children’s safety needs to come first,” McKenna said.

Asked why she feels homeless people would present a threat to that safety, McKenna predicted the camp would be a magnet for trouble. She scoffed at the idea that access to the site could be managed.

“What are they going to do, make them fill out an application?” she said.

Crucial piece to puzzle

The answer to that is yes, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

Such “safe camping” sites, also referred to as a “transitional housing community,” can be a crucial piece of the puzzle of solving the local homelessness problem because it keeps people safe and connected to services while they’re waiting for housing, Holmes said.

It’s often a long wait. Santa Rosa’s Sam Jones Hall shelter, which has 138 beds normally, 188 in the winter, has 123 people on the waiting list, Holmes said.

But there is turnover. Last year Catholic Charities found permanent housing for 600 people in the county, Holmes said. The Homeless Services Outreach Team, which the city partly funds, found permanent housing for 78 people in the city and temporary housing for 126 last year, she said. One problem is that HOST members have to spend time and energy looking for people once a space opens up for them, Holmes said. That time that could be better spent convincing more landlords to accept tenants who have been homeless, she said.

If there were a series of small, well-managed encampments around the city, the team could keep better tabs on homeless people.

That, she said, would improve their access to services that lead to self-sufficiency and allow the team to find people quickly when housing is located.

People who are working to improve their lives and waiting for the chance to get into permanent housing go out of their way to make sure they don’t bother others because they know it risks the program’s future, Holmes said.

The Stony Point site will not allow drugs and alcohol, and will only permit people who have a vulnerability score of between 5 and 9 on a scale of 0 to 20, Holmes said. That means people who have significant behavioral issues will not be allowed there, she said.

In the case of the 10 safe parking programs in the county, neighbors often raise legitimate questions, but their concerns evaporate once they see how well the program works, Holmes said. In many cases neighbors remain unaware such programs are even nearby, she said.

Contentious meeting

But such concerns, for whatever reason, remained entrenched after the Nov. 30 meeting, despite Holmes’ best efforts to explain just how closely monitored and managed the camp would be.

“They weren’t buying what she was selling,” said City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, who sits on the council’s homeless subcommittee. “There were some in attendance whose minds were made up about who the homeless population are, and that was quite frankly unfortunate.”

Schwedhelm said he’s hopeful that people will take a bigger view of the problem and stop saying something should be done - but insisting it be done somewhere else.

“We’ve got to get creative and work together,” Schwedhelm said. “And if we do, we can solve this.”

His colleague on the council subcommittee, Julie Combs, said she’s been frustrated the camp has not been able to open before winter set in. But now that the discussion is underway, she doesn’t want to see it derailed by misinformation.

While she strongly supports the rights of neighborhoods to have a voice in their futures, Combs said the safety of homeless people must also be part of that equation.

While she stressed that neighborhood concerns should be fully heard and addressed if possible, “neighbors are not in a position to have veto power in this kind of a situation,” she said.

Technically, the church has already met the requirements of the CHAP program and could begin operations under the approved guidelines any time, said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and economic development.

But that’s not going to happen before January, said Busick, the pastor.

Church leaders are meeting again today to process what they’ve heard and see if there are changes they can make - such as reducing the size of the camp - that might convince critics to give it a chance.

“We hope that if we can go forward with it that our whole neighborhood will be proud and that we’re doing this together,” he said.

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

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