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Sonoma County extends disputed homeless encampment indefinitely

A split Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to extend operations of a county-sponsored homeless camp near Oakmont indefinitely, defying staunch opposition from neighbors and an equally entrenched but politically isolated board chair who cast the lone no vote.

The high-stakes discussion was the board’s most significant on the topic since January, when it voted along the same lines, 4-1, to establish on the juvenile justice campus off Highway 12 the county’s first-ever managed encampment.

Board Chair Susan Gorin, who lives in Oakmont and represents the area, rehashed that unprecedented move this week, as well as the board’s promise, in writing, to Oakmont residents, that the camp would be gone by April 30.

But Gorin’s demand that the board vow to vacate the disputed camp at the northern end of Sonoma Valley, as well as the hundreds of public comments excoriating the county on its forecasted move, failed to win over any other supervisors.

“We need to move this village to a more secure site,” Gorin said. “I need a commitment from this board to follow through with a commitment we made to that community.”

For the majority, the decision was made in full recognition that it represented an about-face from the county’s earlier pledge. Supervisors said the multi-million dollar investment made in the camp, including 60 tiny homes offering safe and stable shelter to dozens, was worth extending.

“I wish we hadn’t sent that letter, honestly,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, referring to the board’s earlier written commitment to the Oakmont community that the site would be temporary. “I just want to say we apologize to the community for making a commitment that maybe we can’t fulfill at this point, and the reason why is the pandemic. The pandemic has changed everything.”

The decision comes at a critical time for the county, which just this week saw its main isolation and quarantine site for COVID-19 patients and at-risk homeless people at Sonoma State University reclaimed by the college, which is preparing for the return of students and the start of the fall semester.

With no replacement site at hand, supervisors said the Los Guilicos camp proved an even more valuable public resource, with COVID-19 cases on a sharp rise, including infections among homeless individuals.

“Right now we have a public health crisis – and that’s homeless people, older homeless people,” Zane said. “We need to stop looking at these (camps) negatively and start seeing them as opportunities to care for people, people who are suffering the despair of the epidemic of homelessness.”

Still, Tuesday’s meeting re-exposed clear political fault lines in the county’s ongoing battle with homelessness, with opposition amassed among Oakmont neighbors and embodied in the protests of Gorin, a veteran elected official who has nevertheless twice come out on the losing end of the same dispute.

“Once again, there’s no deference to the supervisor here,” Gorin said, referring to herself. “I will hear it from all of the neighbors.”

Still, Tuesday also offered a blueprint for some compromise, as Gorin secured a commitment from her colleagues to find and establish a Los Guilicos-style shelter in each of the other four supervisorial districts.

“This is a vision of the board. Let’s be aspirational,” Gorin said. “It may take a while to secure funding. But I’m confident that the approach we’re outlining right now is absolutely the direction to go.”

The first of the next wave of camps, board members agreed Tuesday, would be nestled into a 1.6-acre nook off Aston Avenue on the west side of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The site, which will cost $2.17 million to develop, won out over two locations at the former county hospital campus along Chanate Road due to the county’s ongoing and fraught efforts to sell that property.

And board members instructed staff to work with the city of Santa Rosa on what would be a first-of-its-kind, co-managed indoor-outdoor shelter model, potentially at the fairgrounds.

Zane, who has turned back earlier proposals at the fairgrounds and other sites in her central Santa Rosa district, voiced frustration at the limited choices, but eventually showed support for the fairgrounds location.

The Los Guilicos model was embraced by supervisors as part of a $12 million suite of solutions to help close a nearly 300-person encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa in January.

From the outset, it has drawn the sharp ire of many, but not all, in Oakmont. Five hundred neighbors crowded the nearby retirement village’s community center to demand answers shortly after the initial January vote, and they secured a variety of concessions, including strict rules for camp residents, 24-hour security and shuttle service to cut down on unauthorized trips across Highway 12 to Oakmont Village.

Since that meeting, the camp, run by Santa Rosa nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul, has served 96 homeless residents and secured more permanent housing for 24 of them. Another 33 left voluntarily or were kicked out, according to St. Vincent de Paul officials.

But many neighbors have seethed at the continued extension of the camp timeline. Originally slated to close April 30, the camp was extended to August and then October before supervisors acknowledged Tuesday that it would be open until a better option became available.

Before the board meeting, Oakmont Village Association President Steve Spanier predicted a flood of angry calls and emails, saying news reports that the county was poised to make Los Guilicos camp permanent had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.”

“Oakmont is ready to go to war on this issue, with the goal of ultimately removing all supervisors who support this initiative,” Spanier said in an email.

Indeed, the Board of Supervisors faced a deluge of public comments, including seven hours of voicemails. Gorin relished the outpouring, but ultimately decided to play just 45 minutes of the pre-recorded comments.

“I think you get a flavor for some of the comments I’ve been hearing for the past six months,” she said, before turning to her fellow board members for their response.

But the majority held up Los Guilicos not only as an example of a model that worked, but a key piece in the county’s homelessness efforts and its battle against a pandemic.

Since February, the county has spent at least $3.2 million setting up and operating the camp. And the county has budgeted $133,000 per month toward ongoing operating expenses. The county will also be required to install fire sprinkler systems in each of the tiny homes, at an estimated cost of $155,000.

In rejecting Gorin’s request for a firm exit date, Rabbitt pointed to the previous deadlines that had been extended.

“We named two dates that we couldn’t keep, why would we name another?” he said. “It’s always dangerous to put that out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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