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Sonoma County poised to make homeless site near Oakmont permanent

A pop-up homeless shelter once envisioned as a temporary site on Santa Rosa’s eastern flank could soon be designated a permanent fixture at the Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center campus.

Sonoma County supervisors will discuss the sanctioned encampment at their Tuesday meeting, and Chairwoman Susan Gorin said the board will most likely be asked by county staff to make the camp permanent, a move that if approved would break a promise to residents of the nearby Oakmont Village senior community.

Gorin, who lives in Oakmont and represents the area, stands ready to oppose a permanent encampment, and Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who supports it, said she expects there will be pushback from neighbors.

“We will have people who will oppose it, and who will oppose it in a very passionate manner,” Zane said. “The onus is on us to demonstrate that this is a positive thing.”

The Los Guilicos Village, a 60-person shelter with services for homeless residents, was created at the end of January as part of a $12 million suite of solutions to help dismantle the Joe Rodota Trail homeless encampment along Highway 12 in west Santa Rosa.

The Los Guilicos site was the first of what are now two government-sanctioned, managed homeless camps established in Santa Rosa this year to address an increasingly visible and concentrated homeless population in the city and its outskirts. The other camp, opened in May outside the Finley Community Center in northwest Santa Rosa, was designed by the city to take in dozens of people who set up tents this spring at Highway 101 underpasses in downtown.

The Los Guilicos development was distinguished by the hard-sided, 64-square-foot tiny homes erected to house camp occupants. But with on-site generators, portable toilets and showers, the camp was designed to be temporary. And key measures designed to give neighbors peace of mind — rules preventing residents from leaving the camp on their own, and 24-hour security – could prove cost prohibitive as the camp transitions to a more permanent posture, Zane and Gorin acknowledged.

Steve Spanier, president of the Oakmont Village Association, said he would reserve judgment on the county’s plans until he knew more, but called any move toward permanence disappointing, “because we were told otherwise.”

The camp was originally scheduled to close April 30, but county officials agreed to extend it until Aug. 1. Sonoma County initially budgeted $2.94 million for the shelter, including $390,000 for the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul to run the shelter for three months.

After extending its contract with St. Vincent de Paul, Sonoma County has allotted $133,000 per month toward operating expenses, although the nonprofit has found efficiencies to keep monthly costs at $124,000, according to Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul and a Santa Rosa councilman.

He said he first caught wind of a possible move to make the camp permanent during a conversation last week with the county’s top homelessness official, Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, who is serving as the interim head of the Community Development Commission.

Through a spokesman, Robinson declined to comment “prior to board deliberations.”

Zane acknowledged that the idea of making Los Guilicos a permanent camp hasn’t been a discussion point for long, citing the pandemic and other homeless-related efforts the county’s Department of Health Services and Community Development Commission have been juggling.

“But I think it’s always been a possibility,” she said. “We discovered that we had a model that worked out there.”

Although there has not yet been robust communication with neighbors, Zane and other officials say many neighbors have come to support the Los Guilicos model, which accompanies basic necessities such as free meals, health care, individual shelters and hot showers with a navigation center meant to guide residents into more permanent housing.

To date, St. Vincent de Paul has secured more permanent shelter for 24 of the 82 residents it has served.

“I don’t think you argue with outcomes like that,” Zane said. “I think that’s pretty darn effective.”

Tibbetts seemed to agree, saying it wouldn’t make sense at this point to close the encampment. He cited ongoing, positive discussions with a nearby neighborhood group as further proof the shelter concept, which aims to move residents into more permanent living situations, is working.

“As of my last meeting with them two Mondays ago, they said there had been zero incidents,” Tibbetts said. “With those kinds of results, I think we should probably give strong consideration toward continuing.”

Tibbetts was an early skeptic of the Los Guilicos location, which is more than 8 miles from the city’s main homeless services hub in downtown Santa Rosa. Situated along Highway 12 at the north end of the Sonoma Valley, the camp also lacks safe or easy pedestrian access to the city center.

But he and others came around to embrace an inherent advantage to the site: It offers a tranquil environment for those who would seek to turn their lives around.

More than 80 people have accepted shelter at Los Guilicos Village, and 29% of those have moved on to a more permanent level of shelter. A dozen are now gainfully employed, Tibbetts said.

There have been hiccups, Tibbetts acknowledged. Fourteen people have been kicked out and 19 have left voluntarily, the camp rules proving too strict for them.

A number of fights among village residents have shaken Tibbetts’ confidence in housing a full 60 people at the camp, particularly amid the tightened travel restrictions brought about because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The camp now houses 49 people, and Tibbetts plans to allow attrition to whittle that number to 45.

Tibbetts said the shuttles that once took camp residents to downtown Santa Rosa once per hour during the day have been cut to a handful of trips per day because of COVID-19 concerns. He said the new schedule has sparked discussion about the true need for hourly shuttles, but he said he would have a hard time supporting continuation of the far-flung camp without any shuttle service or security – a very real possibility come Tuesday.

“If we do continue as the operator, there’s going to have to be a continuation of what I would call a sufficient number of resources,” Tibbetts said. “The (Oakmont) task force felt we were doing a good job because of those resources. If that starts to get whittled away, it becomes risky on a number of fronts.”

Zane said she doubts the county could afford to keep those programs, which are unique to the Los Guilicos Village and were designed to appease neighbors.

Amid the financial strain of the pandemic, Gorin said a continuation of those services is “not based on reality.”

Spanier, with the Oakmont Village Association, said the 4,500-person community would not be happy with any plans that varied from the current safeguards.

“It will be a serious concern on the part of Oakmont if it is continued without all of the parameters that are currently in place,” Spanier said, adding that his statement includes St. Vincent de Paul and Tibbetts.

In a follow-up statement sent via text message, Tibbetts sought to place his organization on the periphery of any discussion of making the camp permanent, saying the nonprofit is grateful for the opportunity to operate the camp to date.

“Any decision to extend the village shall be a public decision between the Board of Supervisors and the community,” Tibbetts said in the statement. “St. Vincent de Paul will not seek to influence that process but will be ready to offer itself up as a potential operator should it continue.”

California building codes present another key obstacle to creating a permanent shelter at Los Guilicos. The Board of Supervisors has already had to adjust its definition for temporary emergency shelter to allow the small, 64-square-foot tiny homes to comply with emergency building codes, doing so months after the structures were first occupied.

And if the structures remain inhabited beyond the six-month mark, state fire code requires each tiny home to have its own fire sprinkler system – a costly but prescient requirement at the beginning of fire season for a site that sits less than a mile from the footprint of the deadly 2017 Nuns fire.

Gorin says she will demand a plan for evacuating village residents, but she maintains her adamant opposition to the site overall.

“It’s the wrong place to put it,” Gorin said.

But she is likely to be in the minority. Zane, who championed the site alongside Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district included the Joe Rodota Trail encampment, recalled an early tour of the Los Guilicos Village. She said the concept stood out because it offered people their own place. It offered dignity, she said.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is like 60 miracles right there,’ ” Zane said. “I think it’s always seeing is believing.”

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

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