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.