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Gov. Newsom offers up Santa Rosa greenway site for homeless shelters

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has given Santa Rosa the option to set up emergency homeless shelters on nearly two miles of state-owned open space in east Santa Rosa where city officials and community advocates are planning a unique greenway project with housing and shops.

The open space between Farmers Lane and Spring Lake Regional Park - owned by Caltrans, which wanted to build out Highway 12 there decades ago - is slated for development into a long, narrow stretch of parkland connected by a trail, featuring more than 200 apartments and 12,000 square feet of commercial space.

After a decade of work by a devoted grassroots campaign, the Santa Rosa City Council in July unanimously voted in favor of converting the land as part of the Santa Rosa Southeast Greenway project. That vote cleared the way for an appraisal of the land and its eventual sale, a lengthy process that is still pending.

The Santa Rosa sites are among nearly 300 state-owned sites statewide, including 49 in Sonoma County, that Newsom is making available offered as part of package of emergency measures meant to address the homelessness crisis, which Newsom has labeled a top priority and “a disgrace.”

A spokesman for Newsom’s administration emphasized the Democratic governor was not forcing Santa Rosa, or any other city or county, to use any of the nearly 300 state-owned sites identified across California for homeless shelters.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re requiring the city to use them or that we even want the city to use them,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, of the offer from Newsom’s desk, which the governor announced in his recent state-of-the-state address.

The properties could be used for a navigation center to steer homeless people to housing or for trailers or tiny homes, Heimerich said, emphasizing the state wanted to be “flexible” about shelter types.

The City Council is not poised to immediately set up homeless shelters on the Southeast Greenway project site. Without further direction from the council, city staff will wait for official direction on how to use any of the state sites, said Dave Gouin, the city’s housing and community services director.

“All we know for sure is that this week, the governor made this announcement,” he said.

Gouin, who did not hear about the plan directly from the state, noted that the city would need to find money to do anything with the sites if it chooses to do so - dollars that ideally also would come from the state to shore up the city’s $3.4 million homelessness budget.

There’s no money directly attached to the offer of state-owned sites, but the state has made available a pool of $650 million for local governments to use on homelessness projects on top of the $750 million in Newsom’s proposed budget, Heimerich said. He acknowledged Newsom’s administration did not directly communicate with Santa Rosa about the sites.

“There were so many properties that I don’t think we had time to communicate with each city,” he said.

The potential for the land to be used for emergency homeless shelters won’t deter greenway advocates, who continue to work on getting the land appraised as they have since their coalition formed in 2009.

“We’ve been at this for 11 years and we don’t intend to change anything at this time,” said Thea Hensel, co-chairwoman of the Southeast Greenway Campaign Committee. She said she was glad Newsom was trying to reduce homelessness: “This is a crisis that just has to be addressed.”

The homelessness emergency is particularly prominent in California and in Sonoma County, which has one of the highest homeless populations among largely suburban areas in the U.S., according to a recent federal homelessness report. About 2,950 homeless people were estimated to live in the county in a census last winter. Nearly 90% said they lived in Sonoma County before experiencing homelessness, two-thirds were living outside of a shelter and nearly 700 were deemed “chronically homeless.”

Other state sites offered up for homeless shelters include a few parcels near Spring Lake and Trione-Annadel State Park, the Sonoma Developmental Center, a field on Brickway Boulevard near the Sonoma County airport, a parking lot south of Sonoma at State Routes 116 and 121, and a handful of lots along Highway 101 in the Cloverdale area.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to consider sites for two indoor-outdoor shelters in March. County staffers who are preparing possible courses of action “will evaluate the potential use of State sites as we bring options to the Board,” a county spokeswoman said Friday in an email.

The plan to offer up nearly 300 state-owned parcels stems from Newsom’s executive order of Jan. 8. The same order will steer 10 travel trailers to Sonoma County to house up to 60 homeless people, though those vehicles will go into storage until the Board of Supervisors decides where to place them, a decision also scheduled for March.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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