Santa Rosa’s first-ever managed homeless camp takes in first residents
Sixty-eight tents reserved for local homeless residents rustled in the afternoon breeze Monday outside the Finley Community Center, where Santa Rosa’s first managed homeless encampment opened to its initial 12 residents.
The site, which can safely accommodate up to about 140 people, is expected to be full by Friday, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which is overseeing the camp.
“There are many that are actually looking forward to some of the stability that it’s going to provide and some of the safety,” Holmes said. “The No.1 goal is to provide safety during this COVID-19 health crisis.”
The managed homeless encampment off West College Avenue in west Santa Rosa is an unprecedented step for city officials struggling to confront two unwieldy public health crises: the relatively new coronavirus pandemic and the city’s entrenched homelessness problem, which months ago was symbolized by a sprawling 250-person camp on the Joe Rodota Trail.
Amid prolonged outcry from neighbors and trail users, the county spent more than $12 million to clear that settlement in late January and relocate many of its residents, including about 60 who were settled in the county’s first-ever sanctioned camp off Highway 12 near Oakmont.
But new, dense clusters of homeless camps have again cropped up, mostly across downtown, where people have set up more than 100 tents, vehicles and other makeshift shelters along Highway 101 underpasses and nearby parking lots, according to a May 11 city survey.
Officials said it likely represented an increase since the pandemic emptied downtown and closed parks for more than a month.
The coronavirus threat prompted the city into quicker action this month and last. Officials first worked to place more than 70 people living at the Sam Jones shelter and in encampments into rooms at the Sandman Motel before pivoting to the Finley site, which is meant to take in those living under Highway 101 and near Doyle Park. The city expects to pay about $134,000 per month as long as the managed camp is open.
“I think we have to be proactive and try to get them limited, by moving them to Finley or moving them somewhere,” said Councilman Dick Dowd, who with Mayor Tom Schwedhelm approved a staff proposal to use the Finley site.
The decision never went before the full City Council and had no formal public airing before it was announced. County supervisors and Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, were surprised last week by the city’s plan.
Under normal circumstances, they would have been apprised of the city’s move, Dowd said, but the public health emergency posed by the coronavirus pandemic motivated the city to prioritize speed, he said.
“If you can save some lives, that’s worth moving through” without the normal public participation process, Dowd said. He added that he had received 50 to 100 emails from people who were upset about the city’s establishment of the Finley site.
In addition to the downtown clusters, an additional 30 tents have been erected in city parks and about 60 vehicles and RVs used as living quarters are parked in the Corporate Center Parkway area in the city’s southwest, according to the city.