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Santa Rosa leaders are rethinking their approach to the homelessness crisis following a visit last week from an expert who challenged many of the assumptions underpinning local homeless efforts.

The City Council appeared to back away this week from the idea of expanding the capacity of homeless shelters in the city to instead focus on moving people out of existing shelters and into permanent housing.

“I want to move in the direction of what works and not just what feels good today,” council member John Sawyer said late Tuesday night.

The city declared a homeless emergency in August, later expanding a housing assistance program to allow community groups to establish “safe camping” programs on their properties.

The first such one has run into stiff neighborhood opposition. More recently, the council has been considering a variety of other options to increase shelter space, including installing portable buildings, expanding the footprint of Sam Jones Hall, activating the National Guard Armory, using the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial building or renovating a former fire station on Parker Hill Road.

Sawyer and other council members, however, seemed to sour on these ideas, each of which had its own obstacles. Instead, he and others expressed support for hiring more people to help those already in the shelter system find housing. Sawyer characterized his interest as “finding success stories as opposed to warehousing people.”

That’s in line with the message of Iain De Jong, an internationally recognized advocate for the homeless, who spoke at a two-day conference on homeless solutions last month organized by the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, a local consortium of homeless service providers and local government agencies.

De Jong argued that instead of expanding shelters, establishing encampments or allowing people to sleep in their cars, homeless services needed to do a better job of supplying permanent housing and getting people into it.

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, said her organization is on board with this “housing first” strategy, and now needs to adjust the way it serves the homeless to better align with those goals.

“The recommendation is we start going deeper with the people that we are serving,” Holmes said.

One way to do this would be to hire more specialized staff. Holmes said only case managers work at the city’s full 138-bed Sam Jones Hall, a ratio of 1-to-65 where when a ratio of 1-to-20 is considered ideal.

Hiring “housing navigators” with expertise in working with the real estate community or “diversion counselors” who work to keep people out of homelessness in the first place might be a more effective and less expensive model, Holmes said.

“We can do a little for a lot or a lot for a little,” Holmes told the council.

City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a member of the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, supports such a less-is-more approach.

“My personal belief is we should go for the quality versus the quantity,” Schwedhelm said.

Schwedhelm said he feels the city should focus its efforts not on expanding shelters but getting people out of them, and for that reason he supported giving another $125,000 of rapid rehousing money to Catholic Charities.

The organization already has burned through its $200,000 annual rapid rehousing budget, which is used to pay housing expenses such as rent and security deposits, put the homeless in lodging or buy them bus tickets home.

Schwedhelm also asked whether the city should consider ending the homeless emergency, not because homelessness is no longer a problem, but because city staff has to ask the City Council every month for reauthorization.

He said he wanted the city to have a “laser-focus on ending homelessness versus just managing it.”

The council unanimously approved extending the homeless emergency declaration for another month.

Not everyone is so keen to pull back from shelter expansions.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said she fully supports rehousing people but is worried her colleagues were taking an “either-or” approach when both short-term shelter and long-term housing options were still desperately needed.

“The goal from my point of view of our (Community Housing Assistance Program) and our homeless emergency was to find space for folks to be safe until we got our act together,” Combs said. “I hear that we’re getting our act together, but I hope that we aren’t abandoning the concepts of providing people with safe places to sleep until they are in housing.”

Mayor Chris Coursey was concerned the array of committees, government agencies, service providers and advocacy groups trying to address homelessness was confusing to the public and to him.

“I sometimes wonder who’s the dog and who’s the tail, and who’s wagging whom,” Coursey said.

He said he was also concerned about the “disconnect” on the council over its homeless strategy, and wondered whether scrapping the three-member subcommittee — made up of Combs, Schwedhelm and Ernesto Olivares — would help the council come together.

For these reasons, he said the council needed to do some soul-searching.

“I would like to take a deep breath and have us all talk about what we’re doing and where we’re going,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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