Sonoma County moves forward with managed homeless camps on county sites in Santa Rosa
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously declared a shelter crisis and advanced a plan to establish managed camps to accommodate homeless individuals at a pair of Santa Rosa locations owned by the county.
The decision is tied to a growing homeless camp on the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa that officials worried would continue to balloon and jeopardize path access without immediate action.
The board’s approval paves the way for two sites with as many as 80 to 100 total tents and 25 RVs. Locations include the county-owned Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building parking lot and lots on the county’s administrative campus by the permitting and planning department and on Russell Avenue.
County staff are set to select the sites in the coming days after further review.
The sites could remain open for at least year, with $3 million in initial funding approved by the board, from sources including American Rescue Plan Act and MediCal Reimbursement funds.
The move marks a new step for the county as it grapples to curb a growing humanitarian crisis, particularly along Joe Rodota Trail, which has been repeatedly closed over the past five years to deal with sprawling homeless camps.
The board’s approval came with the support of homeless advocates and cycling interests, who’ve been pushing for a clearer solution to the series of camps along the 8.5-mile county trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
But some veterans and neighbors of the county sites voiced opposition, detailing concerns about drug use, trash and a reduced sense of safety they feared would come with the new camps.
The camps will 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. Residents in the camp would also be barred from using substances such as drugs or alcohol on site and would have to work toward securing long-term housing in order to remain in the camp.
“This is designed to provide services to get people out of a tent and into housing which will open up a tent for the next person,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Chris Coursey. “This is how we have designed the system.”
Coursey said he hopes the county will open the site, or sites, by the beginning of March — a timeline staff outlined Tuesday.
On Tuesday, county staff estimated there are 50 people living in an encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, just four weeks after the officials cleared a smaller encampment in January. Coursey said he biked Monday along the trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol and counted over 70 tents.
A number of federal court cases have prevented the county from clearing homeless residents from public property unless it can offer shelter to those being moved.
"We're stuck in a cycle,“ said Dave Kiff, Sonoma County’s homeless services division director. ”We keep clearing, we keep housing."
Among all of the alternative housing solutions embraced by local governments in recent years to curb homelessness, including converted motels, tent villages and the purchase of several single-family homes, the county has yet to embrace managed tent sites until now.
County officials said Tuesday they hoped the new sites would help break the cycle that’s played out especially with trail residents.
Still, the plan was met with resistance from neighbors of the favored sites and veterans who have priority use of the Santa Rosa building for meetings and events.
“This plan fails to consider veteran memorial building users, health and safety issues, and the adjacent neighborhood,” Jamie, a veteran who did not give her last name, told the board. “The county appears unwilling to consider how the move will impact the veteran community.”
Many community members also criticized the county for not proving more advance notice of Tuesday’s meeting. The board’s agenda outlining the proposal was released only on Friday.
“To think the county has showed so little concern thus far about engaging the neighborhood, doesn’t instill much confidence,” said Tim Smith, a former county supervisor and neighbor of the county campus.
Other speakers supported the plan, including Santa Rosa Council member Chris Rogers. He noted that other sites like tiny home village on the Los Guilicos campus across from Oakmont and the safe parking site along Stony Point Road across from the Finley Center had not severely impacted neighbors despite similar concerns.
Santa Rosa Council member Victoria Fleming called for better engagement with the community. In a follow-up interview with The Press Democrat on Wednesday, Fleming said she supported the board’s efforts to clear the Joe Rodota Trail but was concerned about the lack of notification from the county and worries raised by neighbors.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins noted that her west county district is home to five homeless housing sites either already operating or in the works. Each location, she said, “generated a tremendous amount of fear and concern from neighbors and the surrounding community. Every single one of those solutions failed to live up to those fears.”
She added the she lives near one of the sites and that her children go to school near one of the sites — a point that Supervisor James Gore made about his own Healdsburg neighborhood.
Several county leaders and advocates stressed the situation could not wait long.
“We’re talking about 50-75 people who are outside today,” said Adrienne Lauby, co-founder of Homeless Action and president of Sonoma Applied Village Services. “And tomorrow night they’re going to be outside in the freeze and the rain, and something has to be done.”
Tina Rivera, the county’s health services director, called the situation “urgent.”
“I think it’s important to understand that we want to avoid a fast-paced growth that we saw back in 2019.”
She was referring to the county’s largest-ever unsanctioned camp, which grew in late 2019 and early 2020 to nearly 300 people. To clear and relocate those residents, the Board of Supervisors agreed to spend up to $12 million — the beginning of an unprecedented surge in homelessness spending that picked up through the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the close of the meeting, Coursey and Kiff committed to hold community meetings to address their concerns, an idea championed by Fleming and Supervisor Susan Gorin.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MurphReports.
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