Huts for the homeless finding their place in Santa Rosa

A handful of tiny sleeping shelters are providing safe spaces for the homeless in the city.|

Harold Wallin has finally found homes for his homeless huts.

The Santa Rosa retiree who last fall organized the construction of 11 small wooden sleeping shelters for people in need has quietly found people willing to let the teenie-tiny houses be tucked away on their private properties.

Four of the huts have been parked on a commercial property on McBride Lane owned by Dave Berto, former Santa Rosa mayor. And two are hidden away at The Living Room, the Cleveland Avenue day center for at-risk women and their children.

The inventive little shelters are doing exactly what they were designed to do - provide homeless people safe places to sleep and store their stuff while they work toward getting permanent housing.

“I’m very happy with our little experiment,” Wallin said Friday. “We’re just trying to be reasonable and do what’s right.”

Wallin and other advocates frustrated at the slow pace of government’s response to the homeless crisis built the huts as an inexpensive way to provide short-term shelter to people living on the street. They figured if they built them, someone would step up and find ways to put them to good use.

But soon after the huts were built, the wisdom of the entire project was called into question. Noted homelessness expert Iain De Jong spoke at a local homeless summit and argued that such programs were a waste of time.

The solution to homelessness was getting people into housing. Period. Transitional housing, sanctioned homeless camps, huts and safe parking sites do little to alleviate chronic homelessness, he argued.

Branded as a bad idea, Wallin’s huts sat unused for months.

Then in the spring, an official from The Living Room reached out to Wallin and showed him a spot at the back of its property she thought might be a good fit for a hut or two.

“We just decided there’s not enough getting done” to solve the homeless problem, said Cheryl Parkinson, executive director of the nonprofit.

They pulled down a fence, plunked the huts down on some bricks, landscaped the area, and put up a new gate-code controlled fence and gate, and now two women have safe places to sleep at night, Parkinson said.

Berto, who sits on the nonprofit’s board, was eager to see if the huts would be a good fit for his property north of Coddingtown. Berto already allows a church and food bank to operate in one of the buildings, as well as the parking lot to be used by Catholic Charities’ safe parking program, so he saw some crossover between the uses.

Two huts just fit behind the building, completely invisible from the street behind a little fence, while two others are squeezed in between the building and the neighboring parking lot used by the U.S. Postal Service. The tight site initially caused some concern, but Berto said he convinced postal officials and the property owner that the huts, which are only about 6 feet wide, were within his 10-foot setback.

“It’s been pretty smooth. There have been no problems for me,” said Berto, 85. “It’s actually cleaned up some of the past activities.”

Russ Samson is currently living in Unit 8, which is painted a handsome pine green and is adorned with curtains. The 61-year-old former mechanic, sheep rancher and Sonoma County public works employee became homeless after a divorce and job losses, and has had trouble finding new work.

He lived for a period at the organized Roseland encampment Camp Michela and was living in his ?pickup when the opportunity to move into a hut came up. While he kidded that it was the size of a “glorified coffin,” it was a move up from where he was.

“It’s not the best in the West, but it sure beats sleeping on concrete or in a tent,” Samson said. “It’s a place to sleep. It’s not a home.”

The city established a Community Housing Assistance Program to make it easier for groups to establish camps on their properties, but the program has fizzled. The First United Methodist Church was approved to establish a camp on its Stony Point Road property, but neighbors complained.

Berto, who served three terms on the City Council in the 1980s and 1990s, including a stint as mayor, just skipped all that drama and got the job done.

“A couple of people have asked me, ‘What was it like to go through the city?’ and I say ‘I didn’t go through the city!’?” Berto said.

He owns the property, it has good insurance, is located in a residential zone, and is involved in the safe parking program, so he’s not too worried about city officials getting on his case.

He said he wishes that other local business leaders would consider hosting a hut or two. Five remain in storage. If they did, he feels the city would go a long way toward making a lot of people’s lives a little better.

“I’m trying to do what the Lord would have me do,” he said.

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

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