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Rohnert Park to spend up to $450,000 more on new homeless initiatives

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Rohnert Park has advanced some of the county’s most progressive efforts to help combat rising homelessness, including looking to set up safe overnight parking for those living in their cars and a landlord incentive program aimed at helping people transition into housing.

The City Council met last week to consider a handful of additional services to help individuals who, in many cases, are sleeping on sidewalks, in their cars and beneath underpasses find their way back into permanent housing.

A majority of the five-member council directed city employees Tuesday to begin developing plans to spend as much as $450,000 more this year on new and expanded programs for the homeless.

“We’re talking about people living outside in the street. Somebody tell me why is this OK?” Mayor Gina Belforte said. “We have a crisis. That means we need immediate action now. We should do better, and we can do better.”

More than $300,000 will go toward cleaning up homeless encampments, including problem sites near the city’s waterways. The city will boost patrols, as well as increase vegetation management. It also will set aside $50,000 of that money to tow away vehicles abandoned around the city.

Recreational vehicles, which have sprung up in neighborhoods and in private and city-owned parking lots, can cost up to $2,000 each to remove.

City employees recommended the initiatives to address a growing number of complaints from residents who want to see more done for the expanding homeless population in south county.

From 2018 to 2019, the combined homeless population in Rohnert Park and its neighboring Cotati jumped 24%, up to 173 people.

Annual homeless often counts are viewed as imprecise, but are a consistent year-to-year measure on how populations in the county are rising or falling. Santa Rosa has the county’s largest homeless population with about 1,800 people.

“It’s a simple thing to say, but it’s really true that homelessness is an incredibly complex issue to try and address,” Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park’s assistant city manager, told the council. “This is really a communitywide, really a nationwide problem, but we’re doing what we can. These are funds we really think we have to spend for protection of health and safety in Rohnert Park, which is city government’s top priority.”

Santa Rosa is spending about $3 million this year — 1.7% of its $179 million general fund budget — on homeless services.

Rohnert Park this year already had committed to spend $250,000 on rapid rehousing services through the nonprofit COTS (Committee on the Shelterless), plus keep another $75,000 in reserve for future outreach needs. The new funding means the city will spend up to 2% of this fiscal year’s $40 million general fund on homeless services.

Among the new proposed funds, $80,000 will go toward accessing a dozen more temporary beds through next summer at a shelter run by COTS.

The shelter in Petaluma currently has a capacity for 100 individuals, and the new beds will specifically be designated for Rohnert Park residents.

The shelter will provide meals, showers and some case-management services. Individuals may stay up to 90 days, although the shelter will have some flexibility in extending the days on a case-by-case basis.

Those with greater needs may be better suited for more permanent supportive housing, which city staff members also plan to pursue through partnerships with other cities, possibly contributing money to a longer-term countywide solution.

At the behest of several residents who spoke at the Tuesday meeting, Rohnert Park council members directed staff members to explore designating an area where people living in campers and RVs can safely park overnight.

The move comes just a month after the Council voted to ban overnight parking at five city-owned lots, specifically targeting the Roberts Lake Road park-and-ride near the SMART railroad tracks out of concern for safety.

Jim Duffy, a 20-year resident, called last month’s decision “inexcusable” and pushed for an alternate site in Rohnert Park.

“You’ve just forced those people into the neighborhoods and made them and everyone else less safe,” he said. “That was just a horrible decision. We need to create some sort of safe space for people to park their cars overnight.”

City staff members plan to work with a private business or church to establish up to two overnight parking sites, which they estimate will cost about $10K.

In Santa Rosa, First Methodist Church teamed up with a nonprofit and volunteers 18 months ago to run a safe overnight parking program for up 10 vehicles.

Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Joe Callinan voiced opposition to an overnight parking program, though he acknowledged the city will need to explore several concepts to improve its homelessness problem.

“I’m not real keen on that,” he said of the safe parking lot. “You’re just creating a problem by trying to solve a problem. You’re going to have people down here in droves. I firmly believe the people that want the help, we should be trying to help. But I don’t believe we should support the people that just want a free place to live and they don’t want to take our help or assistance.”

Callinan, who said he owns a number of rental properties around Rohnert Park, also was the lone holdout over plans to reserve up to $25,000 to fund a landlord incentive program.

Under the proposal, as many as 20 landlords would receive a $500 bonus for renting to a person who lacks permanent housing, helping reduce concerns over renting to a tenant with bad credit or a poor housing history. The other $15,0000 would be set aside to cover any potential property damage beyond a tenant’s security deposit.

“It encourages landlords to take a chance on someone,” said Jenna Garcia, a city housing planner who previously worked for COTS. “Any way to bring landlords to the table and mitigate the perceived risk associated with renting to an individual who may have these challenges will benefit them. It will help them connect with more housing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to more precisely compare the share of general fund spending by Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa on homelessness.

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