Santa Rosa to create temporary homeless camp at Finley Community Center

Santa Rosa plans to set up a temporary homeless encampment this month at the Finley Community Center, where 70 to 140 people without shelter will be able to stay during the coronavirus pandemic.

The managed encampment will be overseen by staff with Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the city’s main homelessness contractor, the city announced Wednesday. It will be located in the parking lot of the West College Avenue community center, on nearly 25,000 ?square feet between the center and its tennis courts, according to a map created by the city.

The city and Catholic Charities are still figuring out how to select homeless people to stay at the site, as well as transportation from existing encampments that lack social distancing, such as the sprawling collection of dwellings under Highway 101 along Sixth Street.

The move toward an emergency sanctioned encampment follows the city’s previous efforts to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak among its homeless population. It included moving residents of Samuel L. Jones Hall into hotel rooms to create space in the city-owned homeless shelter and steering vulnerable people without shelter into other hotel rooms or the temporary facility at Sonoma State University.

“The goal is to try to keep these folks safe and not have the pandemic go through our community,” said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of housing and community services.

Setup work at the site will begin next week, with occupation likely starting the week of ?May 18. The site is expected to exist concurrently with Dr. Sundari Mase’s shelter-in-place order, which is currently indefinite.

Mase, the county health officer, said she had not heard of the city’s plans at the Finley Community Center until asked about them by a reporter and could not comment specifically.

“Homeless have to have a place where they can stay, so this is probably a stopgap measure until we can find a more enduring solution to the whole issue of homelessness,” Mase said.

The city plans to order 70 four-person tents - which will house one or two people each and be spaced 12 feet apart from each other to align with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - and will lease or contract for fencing, portable toilets, hand-washing stations, meal delivery and overnight security, Gouin said. The estimated cost will be about $134,000 per month, likely drawn from general fund reserves, and the city plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The move to set up a site at the Finley Center comes after staff consulted in late April with Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Councilman Dick Dowd, who serve on a council subgroup focusing on housing and homelessness, according to Gouin. It did not arise from a decision made during a public meeting or any formal motion or recommendation, Gouin said.

Schwedhelm said he had expressed concerns to staff about the long-term strategy of setting up a site but said it was important to have safer places for people to go due to COVID-19.

“I think we need to have another option where we can actually direct people on social distancing and do it the right way,” he said, noting that social buffers were practically nonexistent at larger encampments under Highway 101 and the Doyle Park area.

“That puts the city in a very difficult position: Where do our outreach workers tell people to go?” he said.

Santa Rosa decided in March to follow a recommendation from CDC to avoid breaking up encampments during the pandemic, as doing so could disperse vulnerable individuals and further spread the coronavirus. The Press Democrat reported in April that city officials were considering whether to set up a managed encampment on city property.

A federal injunction, imposed last year as part of a lawsuit filed by homeless people and advocates, limits authorities’ ability to break up homeless encampments and requires the city to offer shelter and storage before forcing people to leave illegal camps on public property in Santa Rosa.

Although Gouin said officials viewed the injunction as “pretty all-?encompassing,” a Santa Rosa spokeswoman said the city’s understanding was that the injunction would not apply to the city when it dismantles its Finley encampment.

“The preliminary injunction does not apply to actions taken pursuant to the health officer orders,” spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said in a text message. “Nevertheless, the city will be seeking to identify housing or shelter opportunities for individuals who locate to the safe social distancing site.”

Mase’s order exempts people experiencing homelessness from the requirement to stay home but calls on them to try to find shelter and instructs governments that they are “strongly urged to make such shelter available as soon as possible and to the maximum extent practicable.”

That injunction was to expire this summer but is set to be extended through 2020, according to a federal court briefing conducted via Zoom in late April. Regardless of the injunction’s status, a federal appeals court decision stemming from a lawsuit in Boise, Idaho, will continue to limit homeless encampment enforcement without alternatives in Santa Rosa and throughout California.

The city has mailed information to neighbors near the Finley Community Center to inform them of the city’s plans.

Santa Rosa’s homeless population was last pegged at about 1,800 in the county’s 2019 census, and about a quarter of all homeless individuals in the area live with at least one chronic health problem, according to the county.

Results from this year’s survey, delayed until February due to the encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, have not yet been released.

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