City-sponsored homeless camp at Finley Community Center draws dozens of residents

One week after Santa Rosa opened its first sanctioned homeless camp, dozens of people have moved from outdoor encampments to a parking lot near the Finley Community Center, where the vast majority of new residents of the temporary shelter site have stuck around with few problems, officials said.

Most of the more than three dozen people who entered the 68-tent site have stayed, but a few have left and about 20 others interested in a tent at Finley haven’t arrived, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program office for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which is managing the encampment.

“Once they’re in, it’s very smooth,” Holmes said. “I think the harder part is getting the people that are in the encampment ready to get moved. Not that they’re not willing, it just takes a lot of work.”

Holmes had hoped to have all 68 tents filled at the Finley site by Friday, but by Monday only 39 people were living at the site. Organizers have found it challenging to coordinate logistics with unsheltered people who may lack cellphones and stable places to meet, or bear some latent mistrust for local authorities.

“I do think that maybe there’s a handful of people that are waiting to see the individuals that have already moved in, what their reaction is to it,” Holmes said.

Santa Rosa launched the managed encampment May 18 as a way to draw dozens of potentially vulnerable residents of homeless encampments into safer quarters to avoid spreading COVID-19, the respiratory disease at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. The site at Finley, which sits on about 25,000 square feet of parking lot, features services for hygiene and case management. Tents are spaced out to create distance between residents, who are being recruited by outreach workers from dense encampments underneath Highway 101 and near Doyle Park.

There’s a variety of life situations among Finley site residents, who have reported being homeless for six to eight years on average, Holmes said. She singled out one potential success story - a man who works nights and now has a safe place to sleep during the day - as well as a couple of domestic violence survivors. For most residents, the Finley site could be a good step from living on the street to staying in a traditional shelter, an environment that can be disquieting to some.

“These are people who have been homeless in our community for a long time,” Holmes said.

Only one of the 39 people who entered the Finley site has been told to leave: a man who didn’t want to wear a facial covering, according to Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services. In addition to this lone instance of obvious rule-breaking, Gouin said he wasn’t aware of negative reports about the fledgling site from nearby residents, besides the frustration expressed by public commenters during a virtual community meeting.

“I hear apprehension,” Gouin said, “but I haven’t heard any specific complaints.”

Though the creation of new shelter space with services at the Finley Center is a step forward in Sonoma County, it’s still just a Band-Aid, said Kathleen Finigan, a local homeless advocate who favors permanent small villages spread around Santa Rosa. She called on local leaders to dissuade fears of homeless people by treating them as struggling neighbors, not as irredeemable criminals.

“For whatever reason, they’ve lost their home, and they need our help,” she said. “People can get better.”

The city’s Finley site, like the county’s Los Guilicos Village, is meant to be a temporary shelter to deal with local homeless emergencies, as well as the burgeoning pandemic. City and county staff are looking to partner on a regional indoor-outdoor shelter, but those conversations have been delayed by the coronavirus, Gouin said.

The Finley Center, though not its nearby park, has been closed for weeks due to the shelter-in-place order. Now, it’s starting to show signs of life, with tennis and pickleball courts opening up as county and state officials relax limits on social activity.

Staff have prepared protocols to further open the Finley Center for public activities such as lap swimming once those activities are allowed again. The adjacent homeless camp is an element in the city’s planning, said David Guhin, an assistant city manager.

“Our recreation programs supervisor has been involved in the social distancing site at Finley, so we have factored that into these programs coming online,” Guhin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207.

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