Post-fire outlook colors Santa Rosa homeless budget

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In a sign of what may be painful choices ahead, Santa Rosa officials cited the bleak post-fire budget outlook, scaling back or scrapping plans to expand homeless services.

The City Council on Tuesday shrunk a plan to create a “Housing First Fund” meant to help more people get into housing, funding it for just three months instead of a full year.

And the council couldn’t agree on loosening the rules against people sleeping in their cars or establishing a sanctioned homeless encampment on land being offered to the city by a radio station facing financial difficulties.

In both cases, council members said the fact the city might not have enough money to pay its share of fire recovery costs was reason not to spend money they didn’t have.

Vice Mayor Chris Rogers put the sharpest point on the subject when discussing Councilman Tom Schwedhelm’s proposal to fund just the $534,000 annual cost of the proposed housing fund.

“We have $19 million in our reserves with a $24 million liability hanging over our head that hasn’t been resolved yet,” Rogers said. “We don’t have the $534,000 right now for this.”

Rogers said he might be more willing to consider such an outlay during the budget process, but not in isolation.

Another $318,000 eyed for expanding housing-related services at the Homeless Services Center on Finley Avenue and the Family Support Center on Morgan Street never got any traction.

In a compromise bid, Councilmember Julie Combs proposed authorizing just one-quarter of the $534,000 through the rest of this fiscal year — April, May and June.

That passed 5-1, on the second attempt, with Rogers voting against it.

But there are huge questions about whether funding it for three months will accomplish anything, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

The “Housing First Fund” would provide $100,000 to give landlords incentives to rent to homeless people, another $100,000 in an insurance fund to protect them in the case of damage to the units and another $334,000 in tenant assistance and other costs associated with getting them into housing.

But it will likely be difficult for the organization to hire people for a program only funded for three months, Holmes said after the meeting, and an insurance fund, also called a risk mitigation fund, doesn’t make much sense with a three-month time frame, concerns Schwedhelm had expressed in his failed effort to persuade his colleagues to fund a full year.

Efforts to find places where people can camp or sleep in their cars overnight also fell flat for both philosophical and fiscal concerns.

City staff served up, at the council’s request, several options to expand the camping and parking programs, but with costs from $500,000 to $1.1 million per year, they went nowhere.

Even exploring the use of the remote former site of the bilingual radio station KBBF, which has racked up a $100,000 tax lien and hoped the city would waive it in exchange for use of the property, lacked enough support, failing on a 3-3 vote.

Mayor Chris Coursey said he was uncomfortable launching a new encampment until a city-county joint committee, tasked with forming a new, centralized coordinated homeless services agency, makes some progress.

The group has had two meetings to date during which it “agreed on some ground rules.”

“We agreed with the county to support this system redesign, and I think we need to let that happen,” Coursey said.

Councilman Jack Tibbetts pushed to have city properties, such as City Hall, explored as places where people could sleep overnight in the parking lot.

“At least they’d have a place to go where they don’t have a flashlight shined in their eyes at 2 a.m.,” Tibbetts said.

But Councilman John Sawyer, who has always been leery of the city turning public properties into homeless encampments, fretted about liability concerns, the cost of monitoring and even the fragility of the existing City Hall plumbing.

“It’s not as simple as saying please park here,” Sawyer said. “It’s much broader.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or

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