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Santa Rosa on track to spend more than $7.4 million on sheltering homeless in 2020

The city of Santa Rosa is on track to more than double its spending on services to homeless people this year, incurring $7.4 million in projected costs through December to provide safe shelter to people living on the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least $3.4 million will come from general fund reserves, with city officials hopeful that federal officials will reimburse Santa Rosa for nearly $2.5 million that otherwise will also be drawn from the city’s reserves. A mix of federal and county grants make up the other $1.5 million, according to interviews with city staff and figures they released last week.

City staff documented the past and expected spending as they prepare to decommission Santa Rosa’s first city-sponsored encampment outside the Finley Community Center ahead of the expected winter rains. The city plans to move the 51 occupants of the Finley site to either the Sandman Hotel — where the city has for months rented 71 rooms and recently secured 20 more — or to the city-owned Samuel L. Jones Hall, the largest homeless shelter in Sonoma County. And Santa Rosa also plans to restore Sam Jones’ capacity to its pre-pandemic level, when it could house up to 213 people, by adding a temporary outdoor structure in a parking lot adjacent to the southwest Santa Rosa shelter.

“Heading into cooler weather, potentially wet weather, we think demand will increase for shelter space, particularly at Sam Jones,” said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services.

The $7.4 million in projected spending over 10 months of the pandemic is in addition to the city’s normal homeless services, which are budgeted to cost about $3.6 million from July to June.

The Finley encampment, which opened in May, is expected to cost the city more than $1 million by the time it is closed. Aiming to provide safe, supervised shelter during the pandemic, the Finley site includes 68 tents spread out in a parking lot to promote social distance.

It was the city’s first foray into explicitly sanctioning an encampment on public property. It followed a July 2019 agreement negotiated by a federal judge in San Francisco that limited the clearance of homeless encampments on public property in Santa Rosa.

The city’s plans for the Finley site raised concerns among some neighbors in May, including a few who feared the site could harm their neighborhood in west Santa Rosa.

But those worries never amounted to much of anything.

“We have not had any major incidents, and we’ve actually had many people from the neighborhood come forward and say it’s not what they expected,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer with Catholic Charities.

The expanded scope of work for Catholic Charities has prompted Holmes’ team to add four new staff members, but the Finley site’s existence has actually made some aspects of the job easier for outreach workers engaging with people seeking homeless services for the first time.

“We know where to find them,” Holmes said. “We can follow up with them for appointments. We can transport them to get documents or to a housing appointment.”

The Sandman’s units have been at or near capacity almost the entire pandemic, Holmes said, and Finley has steadily had dozens of occupants despite never filling every tent. All told, 201 people spent at least some time at the Finley site, and 162 have stayed in a city-funded room at the Sandman, Holmes said.

Now, the city plans to wind down the Finley site over the next two weeks, moving 27 people living there to Sam Jones and 24 occupants who are elderly or vulnerable to COVID-19 due to health conditions into rooms at the Sandman Hotel. The city, which has secured 71 rooms at the hotel since March and recently made a deal to add 20 more, is now renting about two-thirds of the hotel’s rooms.

The city estimates its spending on rooms at the Sandman will hit $2.8 million from March through December. It hopes to recoup about $2 million by requesting reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city also plans to pay Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the city’s main homeless services provider, more than $900,000 this year to oversee the Sandman occupants.

The city plans to spend $2.6 million on a sturdy tented shelter in a parking lot just south of the main Sam Jones shelter. The 8,000-square-foot structure, which will shelter up to 60 people, is set for completion in mid-December after the Glass fire delayed construction, Gouin said.

There is no timetable for the removal of the temporary shelter, in part because of the uncertainties posed by COVID-19, he said.

“It’s hard to say right now,” Gouin said. “We entered into this in March thinking we might have a six-month program, but now it’s continuing because of the nature of this pandemic.”

The task of moving people from the Finley site will be carried out over the next two weeks using city buses re-directed to transport the camp’s residents, Gouin said. Work to clear the site will be done after all occupants are gone and will pause on Halloween to avoid interruptions to holiday programs at the Finley Community Center itself, he added.

The city also is working to address existing unsanctioned encampments after clearing Santa Rosa’s Fremont Park from campers starting in late July. Orange safety fencing continues to surround the park as crews repair damage caused by the encampment, such as lamp pole wiring that needs to be replaced after campers fashioned makeshift extension cords to power electrical appliances, Gouin said.

The city also continues to proceed with enforcement action against homeless encampments. Though officials initially heeded guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not break up encampments, the city reversed course over the summer, dispersing large, visible campsites on public property beneath Highway 101.

New or rekindled encampments along the Prince Memorial Greenway as well as a piece of private property near Carrillo Street “are the two large ones that have our attention,” Gouin said.

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

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