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Santa Rosa plans new shelter for 60 people at Samuel Jones Hall

Santa Rosa plans to restore its homeless shelter capacity by building a 60-person structure later this year in the parking lot of the Samuel L. Jones Hall shelter near the city’s southwest corner.

The move would come about the same time Santa Rosa aims to wind down the managed homeless camp established in May outside the Finley Community Center. That first-ever sanctioned camp for Santa Rosa was created to get some of the scores of campers living at downtown underpasses along Highway 101 into safer shelter.

The new outdoor space contemplated for Sam Jones Hall is just one of the ways Santa Rosa is looking to create new spaces for people experiencing homelessness amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to social distancing requirements that limit usable space inside existing shelter systems. The city also has considered partnering with Sonoma County on an indoor-outdoor shelter and expanding its safe parking program at several sites around the city.

The City Council and the public will hear more Tuesday afternoon, when city staff are set to give an overview of existing city homelessness programs as well as actions taken in response to the pandemic.

Though the coronavirus has altered public intervention in homelessness, the city’s ultimate goal for unsheltered people hasn’t changed during the pandemic, said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services.

“Even a shelter bed at Samuel Jones Hall or a shelter bed throughout the countywide system — that’s not the destination,” Gouin said. “That’s just to start working with a person to get them to change their circumstances and get them into housing.”

Santa Rosa has secured 75 rooms at the Sandman hotel and continues to house 77 people there, Gouin said. The new shelter site is meant to restore the shelter capacity lost when the pandemic prompted officials to put more space between beds inside Sam Jones Hall.

The council also is set to approve the award of about $250,000 to Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, a key local homelessness services provider, for operating the temporary camp at the Finley Community Center.

The 68-tent Finley site has never hit capacity. But it has consistently provided shelter to more than three dozen people, including some who have never before been reached by the local care system, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities.

“It was a way to actually get a lot of people who haven’t taken services before, to get them to dip their toe into that world, and that’s probably one of the more unique parts of it,” Holmes said.

It’s unclear exactly how long the city plans to operate the Finley site, though Gouin said he anticipated the city would “exit” Finley sometime in the fall.

The city remains obligated under a court order to offer adequate shelter and storage options to homeless people before making them leave an illegal encampment on public property.

City officials and police officers last week cleared dozens of tents where up to 95 people were living on the margins of Highway 101 underpasses between College Avenue and Third Street.

The move was the first significant departure by the city from federal guidance recommending against such sweeps during the pandemic to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The city had followed that recommendation since March, but officials said they decided the overall poor living conditions in the underpass camps posed health concerns significant enough to demand action.

The operation cleared away the most visible cluster of homeless people in the city at a time when businesses have been opening up in greater numbers and as the city works to revitalize a downtown hit hard by the pandemic. It also marked the continuation of Santa Rosa’s reactive approach to encampments by cracking down on groups of illegally placed tents once they reach or surpass a critical mass.

Local advocate groups such as Homeless Action will continue to call on the city to allow people living on the street to shelter together in transitional “villages” of tents or tiny homes, said Kathleen Finigan.

“It’s so obvious that we are not making headway,” Finigan said. “We are just kicking the can down the road again.“

But the city also is considering some changes to its homelessness strategy, including an expansion of an existing safe parking program that could add up to 100 spaces scattered around Santa Rosa. Possible sites include the former Bennett Valley Senior Center, the Brookwood health campus, City Hall and Sam Jones, according to documents prepared by city staff.

A more expensive option would skip sheltering altogether by securing home leases for homeless people, Gouin said.

He acknowledged an influx of campers at Fremont Park on Fourth Street as well as along the Prince Memorial Greenway since the clearance efforts at the underpasses. But he also expressed optimism that people would seek or accept services when they’re ready.

“We are seeing that if someone really wants to resolve their homelessness, there’s a way to do so, and there’s options,” Gouin said. “It’s a question of whether they’re ready to do so in that moment.”

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

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