Sonoma County’s safe-parking program scales down

Sonoma County's safe-parking program, a widely-praised effort providing sanctioned locations where homeless people can sleep in their cars overnight, is shrinking starting today.|

Sonoma County's safe-parking program, a widely-praised effort providing sanctioned locations where homeless people can sleep in their cars overnight, is shrinking starting Monday, though advocates say they have been able to reserve a spot for everyone who asked for one and intend to expand again.

The program is dwindling from eight sites offering 76 spots to three sites offering 40 spots, due largely to a state funding reduction that prompted Catholic Charities, which administers the effort, to request county officials shift money away from the program in order to prevent cuts at its Family Support Center.

A separate Santa Rosa City Council proposal that could have provided funding for safe parking failed to move forward last week. Like their county colleagues, city officials continue to wrestle with how to best spend funds on homeless services - an area with needs exceeding the available resources.

So far, Catholic Charities has transitioned 15 people from the parking program into shelter, and most of the spots at the three sites where safe-parking will continue have been filled, according to Jennielynn Holmes, the organization's director of shelter and housing. Catholic Charities also intends to grow the program back up to 55 spots because the organization just secured the third site at a private lot near Cleveland Avenue.

Still, Holmes admitted the transition for the parking program, one of the first she was personally involved in starting at Catholic Charities, has been difficult.

“I remember being there the very first day when it was at the fairgrounds, and I have a lot of really fond memories of this,” Holmes said. “But I am grateful we're able to still accommodate those that want a continued service, and that we still have the program open and available for people. It's not the same level, but at least it's still alive.”

One of the program's participants, Marliee Diehl, 59, said she was able to secure a safe spot at a different location than the two operated by Catholic Charities. But she said many in the program remain deeply concerned about the changes.

For Diehl, the spot she used for about four months at the county's administrative complex in northern Santa Rosa has been a great benefit, allowing her to save enough money to swap her old sedan for a larger van with a bed inside.

“There are a lot of people taking these avenues just to be housed, even if it is in a van or a motor home or a trailer - just some kind of affordable housing,” Diehl said. “It's sad that our vehicles have to be our affordable homes in this county. Now they don't even want to give us that.”

The funding challenge precipitating Sonoma County's safe-parking reduction traces to last year, when the state redesigned its Emergency Solutions Grant program to offer set amounts of money rather letting applicants compete for the dollars. The switch led to a $600,000 annual grant reduction for Catholic Charities, which had historically fared well in the competitive process, Holmes said.

Sonoma County supervisors spent $400,000 in one-time funds to help Catholic Charities close the gap last fiscal year, but signaled they could not do so again.

Because of the continued obstacle posed by the grant change, Catholic Charities faced another $200,000 gap this year affecting its 138-bed Family Support Center, Holmes said. So the organization asked supervisors to reallocate the $150,000 they had previously assigned to the safe-parking program to the support center.

“There's only so much funding that we have for these programs, and we had to be thoughtful about where it went,” Holmes said. “We knew that we could still have a safe-parking program with a very minimal budget. But we knew, for example, the Family Support Center, with that kind of funding gap, we were looking at a significant reduction in keeping children and families off the streets.”

Under the new safe-parking model, Catholic Charities is using parking at two facilities it already operates, allowing the organization to avoid paying for overnight staffing or bathrooms, according to Holmes. The third site is on private property.

Catholic Charities plans to host an 11:30 a.m. meeting Thursday at the Arlene Francis Center with churches and other groups that might still be able to provide safe parking spots, Holmes said.

Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane said the safe-parking initiative had been “a really good way of filling an emergency gap” but acknowledged the county launched the program in a different economic context, with a higher homeless population coming out of the recession. The number of people identified in the county's annual homeless census has dropped consistently in recent years, declining from a high of 4,539 people in 2011 to 2,835 this year.

“But we still have a very strong number of acutely - I would say chronically - homeless with the most social, emotional and physical problems that we're trying to house,” Zane said. “So I don't think that, when you look at programming for such a vulnerable population of homelessness, that you can't change and evolve over time based upon the changing factors in our economy and in our funding sources.”

Some public officials also seem more inclined to spend what limited funds they have on services that prioritize getting homeless people into permanent shelter, under the housing-first model embraced by county and city leaders alike.

To Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs, however, safe parking programs are consistent with that approach.

“People can go directly from a tent to housing, a car to housing (or) a shelter to housing in a housing-first model,” Combs said. “The trick is to be housing-focused. In other words, your interactions with the individual involve talking to them about how they're going to get into housing next and keeping everything you do with them focused on, ‘OK, you can park here until you find housing. What are your plans for finding housing?'”

Combs thought her colleagues had already agreed to set aside $100,000 for safe parking this year, but found that support was not there Tuesday when a split council was unable to advance a proposal to have city staff study the program. Critical council members voiced concerns about the potential costs of the program and whether staff's work on it would detract from other city efforts with a greater emphasis on housing. Combs has vowed to continue her efforts to fund the program.

Yet Margaret Van Vliet, the executive director of the county's Community Development Commission, said she believed it would be “a stretch” to call safe parking a housing-first approach to homelessness. But she said it was “scary and heartbreaking” to think some people might not have a safe parking spot due to the “woefully underfunded” homeless services system, and she acknowledged the subject remains up for debate among Sonoma County public officials and homeless advocates.

“Philosophically, we're a divided community in that regard,” Van Vliet said. “Some people really want to pay for those things that help mitigate the impacts and make it a little less painful in the short run. But in a scarce funding environment, every dollar you spend on that stuff is a dollar you're not spending helping somebody pay for a security deposit and get back into a house.”

Van Vliet said the county was in need of a more unified vision regarding its approach toward homelessness, something that should be addressed at least in part during a joint meeting of county and Santa Rosa officials planned for sometime in September.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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