Santa Rosa Vets Building, Sonoma County government campus eyed for managed homeless camps to clear Joe Rodota Trail

The tents would go up in the parking lots at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building and on the county’s own administrative campus in the northern part of Santa Rosa.|

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting

When: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 8:30 a.m.

Where: 575 Administration Drive, Room 102A, Santa Rosa, California

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is poised to consider establishing managed camps for homeless individuals at two county-owned sites as part of the county’s latest effort to address unsanctioned camps that continue cropping up along the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.

The proposal calls for up to 100 total tents spread across parking lots at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building and on the county’s own administrative campus in the northern part of the city.

The sanctioned camps are meant to curb health and safety concerns along the public trail, which has been intermittently closed over the past five years to deal with sprawling homeless camps. In each instance, the response has been much the same: provide campers with alternative housing and support services in hopes they don’t end up back on the trail.

But the latest proposal, if approved, would mark a new step for the county, which has yet to embrace managed tent sites among its suite of homeless housing options.

County leaders acknowledged the proposal is still a stopgap as the county and local cities seek to provide more interim and permanent housing to combat rising homelessness, up 5% since 2020, according to last year’s point-in-time count.

“We’ve been going through a familiar cycle on the Rodota Trail and more recently it has taken a more serious turn with larger groups of people out there,” Board of Supervisors Chair Chris Coursey said. “The ultimate goal is to get everyone housed but we can’t just leave people out on a public pathway without any services or organization. This will hopefully help break the cycle.”

The Board of Supervisors at a special 8:30 a.m. Tuesday meeting will consider declaring a shelter crisis on a portion of the county trail in Santa Rosa, a move that will allow officials to quickly establish emergency shelters on county-owned properties.

Support is needed from four of five board members, with initial startup and operations costs and trail cleanup pegged at just over $3 million.

The camps could remain open for up to a year.

The proposal comes four weeks since the trail was last closed in late January. Twenty-nine people were placed in alternative housing but the county has seen new camps established since, which prompted staff to bring forward the proposal, Coursey said.

At least 50 people are occupying a stretch of the trail, primarily west of Brittain Lane, according to the county.

Members of the cycling community who have long called on the county for more action to ensure the travel corridor remains accessible and homelessness advocates said the proposal was a step in the right direction.

The plan calls for space for up to 50 individuals or pairs on a portion of the parking lot on the west side of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building off Maple Avenue plus space for 25 RVs or cars.

On the county campus, the Ventura Avenue lot for Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency, could be used for another 50 tents, according to a report to the board.

If approved, the camps could open simultaneously or the board could opt to open one of the locations first and expand the program as need arises, said Dave Kiff, Sonoma County’s homeless services division director.

The camps would be fenced and have security, bathrooms and showers, storage areas and provide services, such as behavioral and physical health care, housing navigation and benefit assistance.

“We want to make sure we’re not just relocating people but giving people a place they can go with wraparound services that are going to help these individuals in the long run,” County Communications Manager Paul Gullixson said.

Residents likely will be provided a tent and cot set up on platforms and the camps would be operated similarly to a managed site on Roberts Lake Road in Rohnert Park that opened in late fall and replaced a larger unmanaged camp that at the height housed about 130 people.

Residents in the camp would be barred from using substances such as drugs or alcohol and would have to work toward securing long-term housing in order to remain in the camp. The county could seek to limit visitors to the camp or implement quiet hours though details are still being finalized, Kiff said.

County health and homeless services staff have visited the trail to learn more about the population there and better understand residents’ needs, Kiff said.

Many are considered chronically homeless, meaning they have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on multiple occasions, and some have underlying health issues, he said.

Chronic homelessness in Sonoma County saw a dramatic 43% since 2020, according to results from 2022 point-in-time count.

Gregory Fearon, longtime homelessness advocate and member of the Sonoma Applied Village Services board, said he met with unhoused residents Sunday on the trail and many were open to the idea.

The proposal would move people into safer shelter and the proposed locations are centrally located, making it easier for people to seek assistance and employment, he said.

“This definitely gets us heading in the right direction,” he said. “We’re not just moving people and letting them plop down but connecting them with the services they need to access permanent shelter.”

Kiff said the camps could open by early March and staff would be on the trail within days of the board’s approval to talk with campers about housing options and help them begin the process of relocating.

Sonoma County Regional Parks plans to install additional signs on the trail to note that camping is prohibited. Park rangers and private security will be monitoring the trail, connecting people with services and housing support and issuing notices to vacate, if necessary.

The 8.5-mile path connects downtown Santa Rosa to Sebastopol, and many ride and walk the trail daily.

It has been a hot spot for large homeless camps since the 2017 fires.

In the summer of 2020, officials closed a 3-mile segment of the trail for over a month. That move came five months after Sonoma County cleared nearly 300 homeless people from a sprawling encampment, and supervisors agreed to spend up to $12 million to house those people.

Those efforts included establishment of Los Guilicos Village, the tiny-homes site across from Oakmont off Highway 12 that is managed by nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County. The site was initially meant to be temporary but has now entered its fourth year of operation after the Board of Supervisors voted in July 2020 to extended its run indefinitely.

The county and Santa Rosa saw an unprecedented surge in pandemic-era spending to address rising homelessness, up 5% since 2020, to an estimated 2,893 homeless residents, according to results from 2022 point-in-time count.

After the county last cleared the Joe Rodota Trail, Coursey said people returned to the area within a week and set up camp farther west along the path. By last week, the numbers had grown to about 50 people, he said.

The county must be more proactive in tackling the issue before camps grow even larger, he said.

Still, the proposal appeared to catch members of several veterans groups that meet at the veterans building, as well as some neighbors, by surprise.

Steve Bosshard with the Marine Corps League, one of about 16 groups that call the building home, said he wasn’t aware of the plan until a reporter informed him.

The building hosts a number of large events and the parking lot often serves as overflow for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds across the street. The camp could interrupt operations there, he said.

Bosshard also was concerned that the camp would become a nuisance and would lead to trash and safety problems.

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” Bosshard said. “I don’t know what the solution is but if they want to do it, they should do it in their backyard so they can deal with the rubbish and garbage.”

Coursey and Gullixson said the veterans building had previously been eyed by the county as a possible safe sleeping site, but the latest efforts got underway in just the past week.

Coursey said similar concerns were raised about the Los Guilicos site and about a past managed tent camp at the Finley Community Center in southwest Santa Rosa but “the fears people had … didn’t come to fruition.”

Others welcomed the plan.

Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which has pushed for the county to keep the trail open to commuters and recreational users, said she was “cautiously optimistic.”

The encampments impede access to the trail and pose a safety risk to both riders and people sleeping along the path. She’s had to dodge people sleeping on the paved path while riding down the trail and often people’s belongings, trash and even feces are littered on the ground, she said.

“I’m happy that some action is being taken,” she said.

However, she questioned how the county plans to address trail encampments long term, particularly if operations at the proposed sanctioned camp end after a year. She also questioned whether the county would tackle camps on other parts of the trail outside of Santa Rosa limits.

“This is taking care of things for now but is it a long-term solution? How do we stop the revolving door?” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting

When: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 8:30 a.m.

Where: 575 Administration Drive, Room 102A, Santa Rosa, California

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