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Sonoma County delays move of Joe Rodota Trail homeless to sanctioned camp

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

Sonoma County officials have postponed efforts to move scores of people off the Joe Rodota Trail into a temporary sanctioned camp at the Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center site in east Santa Rosa, pushing back to Sunday an effort that was slated to start Wednesday.

The county’s nonprofit contractor, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, says it’s not ready to go, and Sonoma County General Services Director Caroline Judy said just 30 of the 60 individual housing units at the site have been completed. County staff have also been slow to sign up for the extra work necessary to move residents into the new, sanctioned camp, according to emails and other documents obtained by The Press Democrat.

“We don’t want to be building the plane after takeoff,” said Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, explaining why his group asked for an extension.

Officials say they still plan to meet the county’s self-imposed Jan. 31 deadline for clearing the trail, where up to 250 homeless people were camped last week.

The postponement in populating the Los Guilicos site comes amid lingering blowback from residents of Oakmont, the senior community that sits across Highway 12 to the west of the proposed camp.

It also delays relief for some of the county’s most vulnerable homeless residents, who have for months lived outside in cold, wet weather and squalid conditions, including a rat infestation in camp. Neighbors of the trail have dealt with stolen property and break-ins, nighttime disturbances and the risk of cooking and heating fires spreading into their yards.

Sonoma County staff have already identified 57 people for the Los Guilicos camp, which has a capacity of 60, and now plan to move the first 30 of those people to the new site starting Sunday.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said another 100-plus shelter beds are available as of Tuesday, and the county planned to use vouchers for hotel or motel stays to offer the rest of the trail residents an alternative to the trail, which will be closed by force Jan. 29 by action of the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Officials are still working to complete the purchase of two homes that could offer shared housing for up to 24 trail residents, as well as ongoing efforts to bring the Gold Coin Motel and Economy Inn on line for transitional housing solutions.

But as many as one-third of the Joe Rodota Trail residents are expected to turn down all services, finding their own solution, potentially on another piece of public property.

Health Services Director Barbie Robinson said officials won’t stop working to bring those people inside. She stressed that the short- and long-term housing steps the county is taking — at a combined cost of $11.63 million — represent progress in the county’s struggle to curb homelessness.

Initial plans called for a six-day timeline to clear the Joe Rodota Trail starting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. County staff were asked to volunteer to inventory belongings, haul materials and drive residents of the west homeless encampment to their new, temporary homes 9 miles away. But few staffers had stepped forward for those roles as of Tuesday, according to the publicly accessible sign-up sheet.

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

County spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said it’s not unusual to put the call out for volunteers in the event of a disaster, and she said nonunion employees would be assigned if the staffing needs aren’t met through staff volunteers.

Judy, the general services director, said the roster of helpers was starting to build, and should not be a problem going forward.

“It’s a big lift,” Judy said. “Everybody has stepped up and has been working flat out. We put together 30 units of housing in four days, and that’s a small miracle.”

Amy King, CEO of Pallet Shelters, the Seattle company tasked with providing those shelters, has touted their ability to be set up in 30 minutes. Judy said other problems, including weather, have hampered work.

Rain slowed down electrical and concrete work, and the county has had to secure generators because the system at Los Guilicos has had trouble handling the extra electrical load of a planned 60-person camp. It will feature facilities for showers, a warming hut and hub to connect residents with social and health services.

To pull off the move, and ensure the 90-day camp is a success, the county and its partners will lean on a growing network of volunteers.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins cited those involved with the volunteer group Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, which has a Facebook group featuring 2,300 members, many of whom have offered to drive residents to the new camp, among other roles.

Hopkins said she is inspired by the way government and volunteers are working together, saying it’s far from the norm.

“I think something really wonderful is happening right now,” she said.

Tibbetts said he’s already signed up 75 volunteers — most from the nearby Oakmont neighborhood — who want to help with the encampment. There are two brigades of volunteers ready to welcome residents with a smile — and with necessary toiletries and other supplies, Tibbetts said.

“I think it speaks to Oakmont. It’s incredibly compassionate,” Tibbetts said.

Still, Tibbetts, a Santa Rosa city councilman, said he wouldn’t deny the existence of camp detractors, hundreds of whom packed a nearby community center for a town hall-style meeting this past Friday. Acting in his role at St. Vincent, Tibbetts said he plans to hold a volunteer meeting Thursday and another meeting at the community center with residents where he promises to “do Q&A until people run out of questions.”

Tibbetts said the camp will operate under security protocols, including a rule that people who leave or arrive at the camp on foot will be barred from staying. Nobody, Tibbetts said, would be barred from leaving at any time.

To counter the strict rule, Tibbetts said he has arranged for hourly shuttle service from daybreak until the camp’s 7 p.m. curfew to take residents to the downtown transit center.

Tibbetts said he didn’t personally favor the rule but that it was floated to appease neighbors.

“I don’t like the implied statement …what it says about our guests — that they are inconsiderate or lawless or dangerous,” Tibbetts said, adding that he’s hopeful continued outreach, including with an advisory group in Oakmont, can show neighbors that “these are people just like you.”

Numerous Joe Rodota Trail residents in the past month have spoken up in the past months to say they don’t do well with strict rules, citing it as a reason for living on the trail. But Hopkins said among those chosen to live at Los Guilicos, she has heard stories of people ready to change their lives.

“It’s person by person,” Hopkins said. “But I think here’s a growing sense of relief. Some are starting to get excited about these Pallet shelters — about stabilizing their lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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