Santa Rosa expands homeless program

The Santa Rosa City Council, which declared a state of emergency over homelessness in August, wielded its new powers Tuesday to expand a program that allows some private groups to serve the homeless on their properties.

The decision allows religious organizations and other private groups to operate overnight shelters, safe camping programs and other services for the homeless year round.

Authority to operate these seasonal programs expired in April, though faith organizations continued to serve the homeless on their properties.

Without the emergency declaration, it could have taken the city up to nine months to expand the scope of the Community Homeless Assistance Program.

But the state of emergency allowed the city to suspend its normal procedures for approving changes to the program and immediately expand its scope without the normal public input process.

Mayor John Sawyer said that while other communities around the state are either “in denial or behind the eight ball” in dealing with the homeless crisis, Santa Rosa was showing leadership on it.

“Kudos to the staff. Kudos to our faith-based community and all those that have been involved in creating this great program,” Sawyer said.

Tuesday’s unanimous decision makes the homeless assistance program year-round and expands it in several ways.

The biggest change is that groups with such properties are now also allowed to operate “safe camping” programs.

This means churches or other groups can let people camp on their properties under certain guidelines.

For instance, people will be allowed to sleep in tents and use cooking stoves, but will not be allowed to have open fires.

By contrast, the safe parking program already run by Catholic Charities allows people to sleep in their cars overnight, but does not allow tent camping.

The program’s guidelines also allow groups to offer property storage services, and for people to use portable bathrooms and bathrooms inside buildings.

Any group planning to offer such services will need to register with the city, a requirement that riled some members of the faith community, such as Redwood Gospel Mission, as a violation of their rights to help people in need.

Groups will also need to coordinate with the city-sponsored Homeless Outreach Services Team, which seeks to connect homeless people with services.

Groups offering overnight stays will require an inspection by the fire department.

The city plans to make the emergency regulations permanent, subjecting them to the regular public approval process necessary to change city zoning codes and allow such uses on private properties.

“The intent of the program is to encourage participation by property owners interested in or already providing these services and to foster cross-sector collaboration to better serve vulnerable populations in our community,” said Dave Gouin, director of Housing and Community Services, in a news release.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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