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Sonoma County proposes robust emergency measures to address homeless crisis

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County officials are set to unveil Tuesday a set of emergency measures aimed at addressing the homeless crisis that has spilled into public view along the Joe Rodota Trail and elsewhere, including the possible creation of short-term indoor and outdoor shelters at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

The measures — all potential options at this point — are being hailed as the most robust steps taken by local officials to house some of the county’s 3,000 homeless people. The steps are in some ways inspired by recent emergency responses to natural disasters such as wildfires and floods.

The proposals will be presented before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“During the Kincade fire we were able to mobilize a massive response — we need that level of response to the homeless crisis,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the Joe Rodota Trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. “We need to wake up and treat it like the crisis is it.”

Hopkins called the proposals “revolutionary for Sonoma County” and an attempt to break from a previous pattern of shutting down homeless encampments and offering only temporary shelter, pushing the problem to some other location in the county.

“We declared an emergency a year and a half ago, but we didn’t treat it like an emergency,” she said.

County officials said one of the main goals of the emergency measures is finding a safer, temporary location for as many as 185 people currently living in tents along the Joe Rodota Trail, between Stony Point and Wright roads. The camp includes more than 100 tents and shelters and has become a humanitarian crisis. It is now considered by many to be the largest homeless camp Santa Rosa has known.

One of the options being proposed is to set up this month a temporary indoor and outdoor shelter at the county fairgrounds for those currently living on the trail and others. Officials said the shelter would have 24/7 security, on-site supervision and screening and medical and mental health support services.

Geoffrey Ross, executive directer of the county Community Development Commission, which is presenting the proposals to supervisors, said the pilot shelter at the fairgrounds would be zero tolerance for on-site drug use but that people would not be turned away if they were under the influence upon entering.

Ross said the “outdoor” portion of the emergency shelter would be an area where people could hang out, lie down, rest and be comfortably sheltered, as some people cannot handle barracks-style indoor shelters. They would be given access to water, sanitation, electricity, social services and heat.

The other proposals include:

*Expanding available “rapid-rehousing” opportunities using local dollars. The program, which provides immediate rental assistance aimed at getting the most vulnerable homeless people off the street, uses federal funds.

*Establishing safe camping and parking sites using county property and potential partners such as religious organizations or private property owners.

*Expanding efforts to reunify families, potentially reaching as many as 30 people currently living on the Joe Rodota Trail.

*Subsidizing stays at public or private campgrounds for those who decline service and prefer to camp. This would include group and small tent sites.

*Using several multiple bedroom homes or apartments to house groups of people who have formed family-like bonds while living in encampments. This allows communities formed on the streets to remain intact.

Ross, the executive director of the Community Development Commission, stressed that the proposal are merely options to be discussed openly by local officials and local residents.

“What we’re trying to do is engage in a conversation with the board about options that are all centered on how do we address the homeless crises that are present on the trail at this moment,” Ross said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he was as eager as anyone to see what county supervisors might do, given the shared interest in resolving public health and safety issues on the Joe Rodota Trail.

“From my perspective, any additional resources to help us address this current situation is a good thing,” he said.

But he said there are challenges in having two government entities responsible for the same area, as well.

“We’re getting an earful from a lot of community residents, ‘Why aren’t you guys doing something?’ ” Schwedhelm said. “And, well, we are but it just takes time, and I don’t control the priorities of all the people involved.”

Hopkins said she expected residents around the county fairgrounds to have concerns about setting up an emergency shelter there. But she said the proposal calls for round-the-clock security, onsite supervision and “wrap-around” services for those in the shelter.

She said the site is likely to be fenced off and that there are a number of locations on the fairgrounds that are fairly well isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the fairgrounds, said she is sympathetic to any potential concerns her constituents might have.

But, like Hopkins, she said it’s time for the county to respond aggressively to the homeless crisis.

“By treating it as a crisis, we respond to it as a crisis,” she said. “When we had fires and floods who stepped in … how is 200 people living on a park trail not an emergency in this horrible weather? It’s an emergency.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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