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Santa Rosa weighs overnight parking at city-owned site for dozens of homeless residents

Santa Rosa has set in motion a plan to open an overnight parking lot for dozens of homeless people living in cars and RVs at a city-owned site west of downtown.

On Tuesday, the City Council directed staff to design a proposal for a safe parking program with up to 50 spaces at the city’s Utility Field Office near the Finley Community Center.

Council members had initially aimed to open a site in each of the city’s seven council districts, a move met with resistance by many residents.

Councilman Jack Tibbetts said he and his colleagues are now opting for just one site to limit costs and ensure the success of the one-year pilot program, before potentially expanding sites to more locations throughout the city.

“My belief is that we absolutely should have one in each city council district,” Tibbetts said. “This is a communitywide issue, and it’s going to take a communitywide effort to fix.”

At the field office lot, the current plan is to keep the site open 24 hours a day, with on-site aid services and private security. The cost of the pilot program is estimated at $1 million and would take around six months to get up and running, according to city staff.

In the city’s new budget, approved Tuesday, the council set aside $315,000 in federal pandemic funds for the program. More money could be allocated when council members are set to discuss the program again on July 13.

Safe parking programs in recent years have been adopted across the state and are seen as a relatively fast and cost-effective way to provide refuge for those living out of their vehicles. In Santa Rosa, only three private sites currently offer about a dozen overnight spaces in total.

The City Council’s push for safe parking comes as officials so far this year have disbanded at least eight small encampments across the city, which accounts for more than half of the roughly 2,700 homeless people found living in the county in last year’s annual census.

Adrienne Lauby, president of the homeless advocacy group Sonoma Applied Village Services, applauded council members for supporting a site that would remain open 24 hours a day. She said a round-the-clock program could stabilize the lives of unsheltered people in Santa Rosa by ensuring they wouldn’t have to worry about encampment sweeps or constantly moving their vehicles.

And in contrast to programs that are only available for overnight stays, case managers have more opportunity to offer care and help find people find permanent housing, Lauby said.

“It’s a huge first step, and we’re very happy about it,” Lauby said of the city’s proposed pilot program. “But it’s still a drop in the bucket. You only have to do the math to see what kind of bucket we have here.”

Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s homeless services manager, estimates people are living in at least 330 cars and RVs throughout the city. Countywide, roughly 700 people live in their vehicles, making up over a quarter of the homeless population, according to the census count.

At the county level, the Board of Supervisors last week earmarked $2 million in PG&E fire settlement money and other one-time funding in its latest budget that could support various homeless sites, including safe parking.

Sonoma County Supervisor Chris Coursey said some of that money may be used to collaborate with the city of Santa Rosa on homeless shelters and services. Coursey and Board Chair Lynda Hopkins have had meetings with Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers and Councilwoman Victoria Fleming** about pooling resources for safe parking programs on county-owned sites, Coursey said.

He stressed discussions about safe parking are still in early stages, but listed the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and the Permit Sonoma parking lot at the county government campus as potential locations. Coursey noted the county briefly allowed overnight parking at Permit Sonoma in 2016 and said the lot near the board’s chambers is his top choice.

“It’s a good thing for us to see the impacts of this on the people who use it and the neighborhood where we are on a daily basis,” Coursey said.

Catholic Charities ran a Safe Parking Program, which provided safe locations for families and individuals who are sleeping in their vehicles. There were several sites around the Santa Rosa area until funding for the program ran out. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat, 2016)
Catholic Charities ran a Safe Parking Program, which provided safe locations for families and individuals who are sleeping in their vehicles. There were several sites around the Santa Rosa area until funding for the program ran out. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat, 2016)

Catholic Charities, the county’s dominant homeless services provider, managed safe parking sites at church parking lots five years ago before state funding for the emergency program ran out. Jennielynn Holmes, who’s in charge of homeless services for the organization, said she’s open to again running safe parking sites in the future.

“We have a lot of institutional knowledge around how to operate those kinds of programs ...,” she said “The churches have always told us, ‘If you guys could operate this again, we would partner with you.’”

Santa Rosa’s push for safe parking comes as the city this month closed its temporary shelter at the Sandman Hotel for homeless people at high risk for COVID-19.

Since March of last year, the city had rented as many as 91 hotel rooms at a time and over the course of the pandemic housed a total of 252 people, according to Holmes, with Catholic Charities, which managed the shelter. Of that number, 14 moved into permanent homes, and 82 went into shelters or temporary housing. The rest either returned to the street or went to other shelters for which Catholic Charities does not keep data.

As Catholic Charities wound down operations at the Sandman over the past two months, all residents were offered temporary shelter and most accepted, Holmes said.

She added that since the city’s Sam Jones Hall shelter has recently returned to full capacity ― including 213 beds in the main shelter and 60 in an annex built during the pandemic ― the total number of available shelter beds in the city hasn’t decreased because of the Sandman closure.

The final cost of operating the Sandman is estimated at $5 million, which the city expects will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As pandemic homeless shelters across the county wind down, officials will need to find other temporary housing options to keep from immediately pushing people back onto the street. The $12 billion to address homelessness in California’s proposed budget, which must be approved by June 30, should give local governments plenty of resources to set up new sites.

Chris, a homeowner in Rincon Valley who declined to provide his full name because of the nature of his work, hopes that doesn’t include safe parking in his neighborhood. He’s concerned about violence and drug use.

“Just to burden the residential neighborhoods and the pubic with that presence in our communities is just so wrong,” he said.

Corey Gamboa, who lives in a trailer in Santa Rosa, told the City Council on Tuesday that 24-hour safe parking could be a huge help for local residents who have no choice but to sleep in their vehicles.

“If we had a safe place to go we’d all be in a place together,” Gamboa said. “And we wouldn’t have to worry about moving every morning or whenever we wake up, sometimes randomly. It’s really not that fun.”

**Correction: Victoria Fleming’s name was incorrectly spelled in an an earlier version of this article.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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