Sonoma Valley homeless have few options after encampment sweeps
Sonoma city officials finished cleaning out about six encampments on Sept. 1, the deadline given to a handful of homeless people who had taken up residence at Sonoma’s Montini Preserve, the hillside open space that connects to the City’s popular Overlook Trail. But where those people will go remains a question.
Los Guilicos Village, the homeless haven built last year near Oakmont, isn’t accepting any Valley residents, said Kathy King, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS). She has a waiting list seven people long, all hoping to access one of the coveted tiny homes that provide a safe space off the streets, plus privacy and direct services. The campers on Montini were offered a spot on that waiting list, as well as a bed at Petaluma’s Committee On The Shelterless (COTS). King said they all declined — their roots are here in the Valley.
“They’re from here, they consider this home,” King said.
She likens the constant moving around of homeless residents to a game of “whack-a-mole.” They’re moved from one place, only to pop up somewhere else.
King said about the Los Guilicos shelter, “If we could keep moving people in, we’d have something. We got nowhere to move them.”
Nowhere to go, nowhere to be
Homeless residents have been drawn to the quiet corners that can be found off the trails for years. Maria Colin, who once lived on the Montini Preserve, said it is one of the few places that provides privacy and safety for homeless residents living in Sonoma Valley.
“There weren’t too many people who would bug me up there other than the scorpions and the California tarantulas,” Colin said. “It was a place to actually stay safe for a minute.”
But with nine fires since the start of 2021 linked to homeless encampments, police and fire officials along with members of the Sonoma City Council knew it was time to clear the people off the preserve for the safety of all. They posted warnings that the camps would be cleared out, along with “No Trespassing” signs on both the public and private parcels. Now, the word is out that “the police can go back up there and arrest them,” King said. “And they don’t want to be arrested.”
As an added deterrent, King said SOS will refuse services to anyone who is known to be camping in Montini illegally — something she acknowledges “sounds harsh.”
Most of the unhoused people left before the Sept. 1 deadline. Having declined shelter placement out of town, King is not sure where they landed, adding it’s likely they’ll head to the creeks or other hidden spots in the Valley.
King would prefer to offer homeless residents a shelter and connect them to the resources needed to help get back on their feet.
If only the given space fulfilled their needs.
No vacancy for Sonoma at the shelter
In response to the health hazard created when hundreds of homeless residents set up camps on the Joe Rodota Trail in 2019, the County built the Los Guilicos Village, a series of “tiny homes” near Oakmont. Split between the five supervisor’s districts, the County’s Homeless Taskforce, including then-chair of the Board of Supervisors Susan Gorin, promised the Valley’s First District 15 of the 60 shelters.
“And we’re just not getting them,” she said, adding that she has only been able to place nine residents at Los Guilicos. “The case manager told us, ‘You can’t get anyone else in.’ They’re on the waiting list.”
David Kiff, former interim city manager for Sonoma who now runs the county’s Community Development Commission, said 13 Valley residents were living at Los Guilicos. King added, “I don’t know who those other people are, we still have people to place.”
Mayor of Sonoma Madolyn Agrimonti said, while it doesn’t always get the attention of county government, Sonoma Valley has a pervasive issue with homelessness.
“They think that we don’t have these problems,” Agrimonti said. “We have all the same problems that L.A. and New York have, we just don’t have enough zeros in our budget.”
Sonoma County declared a public health crisis in response to homelessness, investing $12 million dollars to services and programs, which included nearly $3 million for Los Guilicos Village. The 60 “tiny homes” for homeless residents are operated by St. Vincent de Paul, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit.
The power to decide which beds go to which cities is controlled by the Board of Supervisors. Gorin, the Valley’s voice on the board, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment on this article.
“Our supervisor has just one vote,” Mayor Agrimonti said about Gorin. “And we don’t have the votes to get a stand.”
In an email to King, Gorin suggested that the city look to expand its safe parking program, which allows people to live in their cars at the parking lot by the police station.
“We already have a safe parking with 10 people in their cars,” King said. “Folks in Montini don’t have a car, so it’s a ridiculous reply.”
Without other options, homeless residents of Sonoma are likely to seek shelter right back at the same places they stayed before they moved to Montini, Colin said.
“You’re going to see a lot of people underneath (bridges), a lot of people underneath Staples and more people in Maxwell Park,” Colin said.
Homelessness may become a bigger issue in coming months after the Supreme Court overturned President Joe Biden’s eviction moratorium Aug. 26. The court ruled that the CDC’s order, which argued that the eviction moratorium was a matter of protecting public health, had “exceed its authority.”
Those affected will face a tough set of choices, King said.
“People are afraid they’re going to be evicted,” she said. “In Santa Rosa, they bought hotels. Sebastopol, they bought hotels. But in the City (of Sonoma) and in the Valley, there are no places.”
With winter coming, the need grows more immediate. SOS once partnered with the Sonoma Alliance Church to offer eight to 12 people a place to rest their head and stay warm on cold nights. But that arrangement ended when the pandemic set in, since social distancing was not possible.
The Montini Preserve was a haven for those without anywhere else to go. It’s not anymore. And it will likely stay that way, Agrimonti said.
“Unfortunately, I’m sure they have nowhere to go,” Agrimonti said. “They can’t go back up there.