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Santa Rosa to spend $415,000 on homeless outreach effort

Santa Rosa took two significant steps toward addressing the city’s homelessness problem Tuesday, expanding a county outreach program inside city borders and moving forward with a plan to fund a mobile shower and bathroom for homeless people.

The City Council enthusiastically endorsed a plan to spend $415,000 expanding the county’s new homeless outreach program, which uses a variety of approaches to encourage people to take advantage of services.

Mayor John Sawyer said investing in aid to get people off the streets saves money in much the same way keeping people healthy and out of emergency rooms keeps health care costs down.

“Upstream investments are not a waste of money. It will cost us less in the long run,” Sawyer said.

There was less council agreement, however, about the best way to ensure more homeless people had regular access to bathrooms.

The council was torn over the idea of spending about $74,000 on a mobile trailer fitted with a shower and bathroom for use by the homeless.

Several council members felt the idea was a step in the right direction.

“It’s a start. It’s not the answer,” said Ernesto Olivares.

Councilman Gary Wysocky said he, too, supported the idea of the trailer even if some of the details had yet to be worked out.

“I like the idea, it’s just the devil is in the details,” Wysocky said. “It might be a large issue, but there’s an immediate need, and shame on us if we don’t start addressing it.”

Other council members took stronger issue with the proposal, but for different reasons. Sawyer said he preferred a more “conservative” approach to the issue and wanted to wait to see the results of the outreach program before moving forward with a single trailer whose impact he felt would be would be limited.

“I feel that a shower and restroom on a trailer is a shotgun approach,” Sawyer said.

Julie Combs supported the trailer idea, but said it didn’t go far enough toward solving a bigger problem affecting “hundreds and thousands” of people in the city daily.

“We have a public health problem, because people are going in front of so-and-so’s business, or going in the park because the bathroom door is locked,” Combs said. “They’re not not going.”

Combs said she wanted to see a more comprehensive solution that included opening park bathrooms all night and opening the transit mall bathrooms at least until all buses are done operating. She said she also wanted to allow church and nonprofit groups to place portable toilets on their properties and discuss opening additional areas of the city as “safe parking” zones where people can sleep in their cars. Catholic Charities already has places in the city where such activity is sanctioned and working well, said Jennielynn Holmes-Davis, director of shelter and housing at the organization.

Combs got some support from Georgia Berland, executive officer of Sonoma County Task Force, who said she felt the focus should be more on bathrooms than showers.

“People can wait to take a shower. People can’t always wait to use the bathroom,” Berland said. “We need to have some facilities for people to be able to use a bathroom at any time of day.”

But city staff members estimate that opening, cleaning and monitoring city bathrooms overnight would annually cost $72,000 each. That figure caused some to shy away from the proposal. Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom noted that the “bitter pill” in all the options was that for every dollar spent, the city would have less money to spend on permanent housing.

Vice Mayor Chris Coursey, however, said the trailer was the “right move” because service providers feel that they can use the shower and bathroom as a tool to get people off the street.

“It’s providing an opportunity to get people out of the creeks, out of the encampments, and into someplace decent to live that has a bathroom,” he said.

City staff said they would return to the council with an amendment to the homeless outreach contract to add the trailer and outline its use. There was some support keeping the transit mall’s bathrooms open in later hours and giving more flexibility on portable restrooms to nonprofit groups. It wasn’t clear if and when that proposal would return to the council.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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