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Homeless activists ask county to sanction Roseland camp

Three months after setting up an unauthorized homeless encampment in southwest Santa Rosa, the residents of Camp Michela are calling on county officials to sanction their self-governed tent village.

The county says the encampment is not a “permitted use” at the site, a back lot on county property slated for a highly anticipated mixed-use development off Sebastopol Road that many hope will become an urban centerpiece for Roseland neighborhood residents.

But Camp Michela residents and their advocates argue that those permit rules can be changed, especially for a camp that they say has become a successful, cost-efficient model for addressing Sonoma County’s endemic homeless crisis.

“Sanction us for six or more months, and in that time go through the permitting and hearing process that’s necessary for us to have a permanent site,” said Carolyn Epple, co-founder of Camp Michela.

The camp, named for Michela Wooldridge, a homeless single mother who was slain just days before she was to receive a space at the Sam Jones Hall shelter in 2012, was originally erected last September in a parking lot outside the former offices of the Sonoma County Water Agency. The move, led by Epple and other activists with Homeless Action, was part of a protest against what the group said was local governments’ inaction on homelessness issues.

The camp has sheltered about 20 homeless people for months, keeping them dry through a cold fall and particularly wet winter. But it also has helped push county and Santa Rosa officials to a series of actions, including the establishment of safe-parking areas for homeless people to sleep in their vehicles and the consideration of approving such encampments as a temporary solution.

On Tuesday, Epple and a handful of camp residents attended a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors to ask county officials to legitimize their camp, at least until a permanent site is found.

“We have proven that it is a viable, cost-effective measure that could be used to assist the homeless of Sonoma County,” camp co-founder Mikeal O’Toole told supervisors. “The Board of Supervisors can sanction just us. By sanctioning us doesn’t mean you sanction all homeless encampments.”

Jim Leddy, special projects director for Sonoma County’s Community Development Commission, which is overseeing the Roseland development, said the county continues to search for a location for the camp.

Leddy said Camp Michela residents “are finding exactly what’s happening to the other 2,000 people who are unsheltered - there is nowhere to go.”

He said local shelters are at capacity and there isn’t enough housing to dedicate units for homeless people.

“They are not sanctioned on our property, which is why we’re trying to find some place for them to go,” Leddy said.

Community Development Commission officials have repeatedly stated that Camp Michela was not authorized to be set up at the Roseland site. But camp organizers say commission officials knew ahead of time they would be moving there.

On Nov. 15, the day the camp was set up in a gravel lot behind the Dollar Tree store off Sebastopol Road, Leddy and CDC Executive Director Kathleen Kane were on hand and even made suggestions about the footprint of the site, asking that it be kept out of sight from Sebastopol Road.

Camp organizers say they only want some assurance that they won’t suddenly be kicked out.

Leddy said his agency is actively looking for another location for the camp. He said the Roseland site won’t see any significant construction for two or three years, but the goal is to find an alternative location much sooner than that.

Leddy said the county is currently considering the possibility of changing land-use restrictions to allow such homeless camps to operate.

“Could these forms of emergency shelter camps make sense? We are reviewing that,” he said.

Epple accused the county of dragging its feet on both authorizing Camp Michela and finding a permanent site for its residents.

In contrast, she said, the county has moved quickly on finding a location for a village of tiny homes for homeless people. On Jan. 5, supervisors chose a vacant lot at the county administration complex for that project.

“If they wanted to, they could find a location. They did it for the tiny homes,” Epple said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin ?Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza?@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@renofish.

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