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Many Oakmont residents skeptical of being neighbors with county temporary homeless camp

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For more stories on Sonoma County's homeless crisis, go here.

Santa Rosa resident Denise Olliffe, 49, dreads that her elderly parents in Oakmont will soon share Highway 12 with a sanctioned homeless camp being erected on the county’s Los Guilicos juvenile justice campus.

Olliffe was unmoved by county officials who spoke to a tense, standing-room audience of about 500 people Friday at Oakmont’s Berger Center. They attempted to quell fears about temporarily sheltering 60 of the 220 homeless people from the Joe Rodota Trail across from the retirement community east of Santa Rosa.

However, Oakmont resident Vicki Kalish, 79, said she was optimistic about the new outdoor homeless shelter, a far-flung parking lot transformed by 49 small, prefabricated housing units, showers, a dog run and space for people to bring meals and other services to the residents. Kalish said the arrival of the shelter serves as a reminder of the hardships faced beyond the retirement village.

County officials said the first 30 of 48 individuals already prioritized for relocation to the new camp site from the Rodota trail will move there Wednesday, as part of a $2 million temporary sheltering plan until April 30 the county Board of Supervisors adopted earlier this week.

Like many others crammed into Oakmont’s community center, Olliffe agreed something needed to be done to help the people living in squalor on the west Santa Rosa trail, now home to the city’s largest-ever homeless encampment. She was wary, though, of county officials saying the camp near Oakmont only will be a 90-day living arrangement.

“There’s no way in hell this is going away — ever,” Olliffe said. “Once this goes into place, it’s staying. I think they’re lying to the public right now.”

Rather than handing over the microphone to an agitated crowd Friday, a moderator distilled about 200 written questions into the most pressing issues, and posed them to the panel of local officials at the community gathering.

The bulk of questions were about crime, safety and rules enforcement, although the audience clamored for explanations about the selection of the site near Oakmont.

Jack Tibbetts, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, the site operator of the homeless camp, said the nonprofit is spending $30,000 to hire 24-hour security. At least two staffers will be on-site at all times and an 8-foot privacy fence will surround the Los Guilicos shelter area. There will be daily hourly shuttles for residents from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. they can use for myriad reasons including going to work. Shelter units, costing $4,500 apiece, each will have a heater, a bed and an electrical outlet. Also, a warming tent is being put up on the property. Open fires will not be allowed.

Tibbetts, also a Santa Rosa city councilman, went on to cite security recommendations provided to county officials who will decide which or all of them will be adopted. It’s recommended residents be restricted from leaving the Los Guilicos shelter area on foot; drugs and alcohol not be permitted; and residents not be allowed visitors early on to prevent potential conflicts with outsiders.

“If this fails, I’m going to take this as my failure,” said Tibbetts, who held an informal question-and- answer session with dozens of residents after Friday’s meeting. “If this succeeds, this is going to be our shared success.”

For more stories on Sonoma County's homeless crisis, go here.

Contacted after the Oakmont community meeting, Miles Sarvis, leader of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a homeless advocacy group, said the security recommendations “seem to us to be created out of fear, not logic. We believe they will dissuade our houseless neighbors from wanting to go to the camp, further complicating a rushed situation.”

Also, speaking after the meeting, Scott Wagner, a member of Homeless Action, said although the recommended security rules are strict, the homeless camp is voluntary so people can decide whether or not they want to live there.

“We must remember that these are volunteer camps and this is a compromised set of rules,” said Wagner, a project manager for Sonoma Applied Village Services, which is negotiating with Society of St. Vincent De Paul to provide services, such as meals and transportation, for the sanctioned camp.

Susan Gorin, the supervisor who represents eastern Sonoma County and lives in Oakmont, echoed the concerns raised by her neighbors. She was critical of county staff members for the process that resulted in “two horrible choices,” leaving Los Guilicos as the most viable option for the temporary sanctioned homeless camp. Officials favored it over a site near the county campus on Administration Drive too close to a school.

“You, like I, are not happy with the decision,” Gorin said. “But our job is to make it a successful operation with the least amount of impacts.”

Given the sheer number of people that turned out for Friday’s meeting, Oakmont resident Bonnie Lind said it’s clear there is a high level of concern, especially given the three-month commitment by county officials.

Despite assurances from officials at the meeting the Los Guilicos homeless camp would be shut down April 30, Lind and some others were skeptical.

“It has to work,” Lind said. “If it doesn’t, we’re going to be in deep trouble.”

Taking an optimistic view, Kalish said, “I’m very hopeful.”

Staff Writers Tyler Silvy and Chantelle Lee contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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