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Santa Rosa lays groundwork for safe parking as COVID-19 again delays plan to clear homeless encampment

An outbreak of COVID-19 has delayed Santa Rosa’s plans to clear a large encampment for the second time as of Tuesday, when the City Council expressed approval for creating safe parking areas for unsheltered people on city property in an expanded effort to take on the homelessness crisis.

City staff had been planning to start clearing a large encampment involving dozens of RVs in the Industrial Drive area Tuesday until a recent discovery that some people living there have contracted COVID-19, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s homeless services manager.

Four or five people out of 44 at the Industrial Drive encampment tested positive, and the county planned to do two more rounds of testing, said county spokesman Matt Brown.

COVID-19 also sidelined the city’s previous effort to clear the encampment after a late December outbreak at Samuel L. Jones Hall, the city-owned shelter that’s the largest in the county. That outbreak led Santa Rosa to pause sweeps of illegal camps on public property, which already have been limited by a court order since July 2019.

Council members generally voiced support for an expanded safe parking program, which Kuykendall estimated would cost between $165,000 and $530,000 annually, depending on the level of services provided. But they also acknowledged that a safe parking program would need to be part of a larger, coherent effort to combat homelessness if it were to succeed.

“That needs to be geared towards our desired outcomes,” Mayor Chris Rogers said. “It can’t just be a place where we push people to the side and lose sight of our obligation to try to help end homelessness for them.”

Homeless advocates cheered the city’s willingness to consider a safe parking program, citing the relative stability it would provide people whose only homes are the vehicles they find themselves in when the sun goes down.

“I am giving you the big sigh of relief I’m hearing from homeless people at the very idea that there could be safe parking in Santa Rosa,” said Adrienne Lauby, a local leader in advocating for homeless people. However, based on her estimate that 200 people lived in their vehicles in Santa Rosa alone, the city’s 100-spot program would only halfway address the problem, she said.

The safe parking program Kuykendall discussed would be a major upgrade from the city’s current initiative, which relies on willing private parties and only offers up to a few dozen spaces at three sites citywide for overnight parking. It would involve up to 100 overnight parking spaces on city-owned property, scattered across the city, with densities likely ranging between five and 20 spots.

Kuykendall, after surveying at least 100 city-owned sites across Santa Rosa, found at least one candidate in each of the seven City Council districts:

  • 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.

Kuykendall repeatedly noted that Tuesday’s list was preliminary.

“Tonight is less about these locations and more about if council wants to do a safe parking program,” she said.

Her presentation Tuesday included a few other proposals, including turning the sturdy tented structure erected outside Sam Jones — a way to expand capacity lost to social distancing requirements — into a permanent part of the local system of care.

The city could spend a few million more to turn that tent into a permanent annex to Sam Jones, ensuring greater shelter capacity and also allowing people experiencing homelessness to interact with local care providers at the site, Kuykendall said.

City staff, responding to RV-heavy encampments like the current Industrial Drive cluster and the past concentration at Corporate Center Parkway, also floated a new ordinance targeting RVs with stricter parking rules.

However, several council members and members of the public raised questions about this strategy — though stricter rules on RV parking would likely make it easier for the city to clear encampments, it was unclear how tighter rules would do anything to address homelessness itself.

Several Bay Area cities, from San Francisco to Rohnert Park, have passed rules related to RV parking, according to city staff. That led Councilwoman Victoria Fleming to ask city staff whether anti-RV moves made to the south have contributed to an influx of RVs in Santa Rosa.

McGlynn cautioned Rob Sprinkle, the city’s deputy traffic engineer, against offering an opinion on whether these municipalities’ moves were related to conditions in Santa Rosa, but Fleming made the connection anyway and urged her colleagues to avoid pushing RVs ever further to the north.

“Do we want to be those kinds of neighbors to Windsor, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Ukiah, Humboldt, so on? Are we going to send it all the way to Portland?” Fleming asked. “I’m sure that many people would like to do that, but I for one think we ought to be better regional actors and stewards.”

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

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