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Santa Rosa council to discuss expanding safe parking program for homeless residents

Snapshot of homelessness in Sonoma County

Homeless residents in Sonoma County: 2,745 (down from latest peak of 2,996 in 2018 following the 2017 firestorm)

Share who lived in the area before they became homeless: 88% (and nearly two-thirds of those who were homeless last year have lived here 10 years)

Main drivers of local homelessness: Lost job (22%); alcohol or drug abuse (16%); domestic dispute (15%); fire (10%)

Share of the homeless population that regularly are without shelter: 62%

Top obstacles to permanent housing for the homeless population: Can’t afford rent (70%); no job/not enough income (50%); no money for moving costs (31%); no housing available (20%)

Share of local homeless residents with a disabling condition: 40% (defined by the federal government as a developmental disability, HIV/AIDS, or a long-term physical or mental impairment that affects ability to live independently)

Source: Sonoma County Homeless Census & Survey 2020

The Santa Rosa City Council is scheduled on Tuesday to discuss its plan to significantly expand safe overnight parking options for homeless people living in their cars or RV’s.

Details for the proposal are still being worked out, and Tuesday’s discussion will be focused on funding for the plan, which is for now set at $315,000 for the next fiscal year.

Councilmembers aim to establish at least one overnight parking lot at city-owned sites in each of Santa Rosa’s seven council districts. The exact number of spots available at the lots is yet to be determined and will depend on how much funding is available, as well as which sites are ultimately selected, city officials said.

“Safe parking problems aren’t going to solve homelessness for the city alone,” said Mayor Chris Rogers. “It’s another tool to get people into services. It’s a more managed approach to than just allowing encampments to grow.”

Safe parking programs have in recent years been adopted across the state as a relatively fast and cost-effective way to provide refuge for those living out of their vehicles. In Santa Rosa, the city’s current initiative relies on three private sites that together only offer up to a few dozen spaces for overnight parking.

The City Council’s effort to expand the program comes as officials have so far this year dispersed at least six small encampments across the city, which accounts for more than half of the roughly 2,700 homeless people found living in the county in last year’s annual census.

The parking program is a less expensive alternative to the path the city took last year — establishing its first-ever, 68-tent managed homeless camp outside the Finley Community Center. The camp was part of a host of unprecedented city spending on homeless services during the pandemic set to add up to $10.3 million by June, including $3.1 million for a recent expansion at Sam Jones Hall, the county’s largest shelter.

By comparison, Santa Rosa typically spends about $3.5 million a year on homelessness.

Rogers said the parking lots will likely be operated by a nonprofit homeless service provider that also could help unsheltered people find permanent housing.

“We still want them to be housing first-focused… with services providing opportunity to end homelessness for individuals,” he said.

Rogers acknowledged that some residents will inevitably push back against having safe parking lots in their neighborhoods. Part of the reasoning behind creating sites in all seven council districts was to “take the politics out if it by putting everybody’s skin in the game,” he said. Still, Rogers said suburban areas of the city have relatively little public property available, meaning some districts might not end up with a site.

City spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said staffers have identified seven potential sites for the City Council to consider:

District 1: Southwest Community Park on Hearn Avenue

District 2: Brookwood health center on Sonoma Avenue, and the city’s Parking Lot 6 on E Street

District 3: Rincon Valley Library on Montecito Boulevard

District 4: Franklin Community Park on Franklin Avenue

District 5: Finley Community Park at College Avenue and Stony Point Road, Northwest Community Park on Marlow Road and City Hall downtown

District 6: Youth Community Park on Fulton Road

District 7: A Place to Play on West Third Street, and the city’s Utilities Field Office on Stony Point Road.

Sonoma County has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness among suburban communities in the nation, according to statistics kept by the federal government. Santa Rosa is home to over 1,500 homeless people, according to the 2020 Sonoma County homeless census. It found that countywide, more than a quarter of the homeless population lives in vehicles. (The census report does not break down vehicle-dwellers by city.)

Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s homeless services manager, said she estimates at least a few hundred people in Santa Rosa live in cars or RV’s.

“I’m not sure we’ll have a program that can accommodate (everyone living in a vehicle), but hopefully it will be a good start to meet the need of everybody that’s out there,” she said.

One concern for homeless advocates is whether the sites will be open 24 hours a day. If not, some people may not be able to arrive and leave the lots at set times in the morning and at night, especially if they don’t have a working vehicle.

“What you end up doing is spending the money but only having a very small clientele that can take advantage of the program,” said Patrick O’Loughlin, a board member of homeless shelter operator Sonoma County Applied Villages Services.

Santa Rosa Councilman Eddie Alveraz backs the safe parking proposal and said making sites accessible at all hours would benefit communities and businesses.

“I would prefer 24/7 so these cars aren't creating a blight or nuisance in our neighborhoods or commercial districts,” Alveraz said in an email.

Rogers said he expects the sites would likely not be open at all hours of the day, largely due to budget constraints. But he added the proposed $315,000 for expanding the program could increase once money is allocated from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest $12 billion homelessness plan.

“I would anticipate that number changes,” he said.

2020 Homeless Census and Survey summary.pdf

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Snapshot of homelessness in Sonoma County

Homeless residents in Sonoma County: 2,745 (down from latest peak of 2,996 in 2018 following the 2017 firestorm)

Share who lived in the area before they became homeless: 88% (and nearly two-thirds of those who were homeless last year have lived here 10 years)

Main drivers of local homelessness: Lost job (22%); alcohol or drug abuse (16%); domestic dispute (15%); fire (10%)

Share of the homeless population that regularly are without shelter: 62%

Top obstacles to permanent housing for the homeless population: Can’t afford rent (70%); no job/not enough income (50%); no money for moving costs (31%); no housing available (20%)

Share of local homeless residents with a disabling condition: 40% (defined by the federal government as a developmental disability, HIV/AIDS, or a long-term physical or mental impairment that affects ability to live independently)

Source: Sonoma County Homeless Census & Survey 2020

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