Behind the Dollar Tree store in southwest Santa Rosa, where homeless people have lived in tents for more than two years, bright yellow notices posted on the chain-link fences surrounding two neighboring encampments now warn residents their time on the publicly owned property is running out.
For the about 130 people who occupy the tent villages, the notices are a stark reminder that Sonoma County officials intend to clear out the Sebastopol Road site to make room for a new housing development — and soon. Residents have until March 23 to leave, the notices say.
But the yellow warnings also herald the launch of an ambitious effort spearheaded by the property’s landlord, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.
Next to the encampments, the commission is setting up a so-called housing navigation center, a services hub that officials hope can connect each resident with housing or shelter before the county shuts down the tent villages.
Ikedia Jones, who moved to one of the encampments behind the Dollar Tree about a month and a half ago, said she plans to check out the services offered by the center. She doesn’t feel like she has much choice.
“I’m gonna take advantage of everything they have to give, because they’re taking a lot away right now,” Jones, 49, said while making breakfast at her tent Thursday.
But Jones isn’t sure how smoothly the encampment’s planned closure will play out overall.
“I find it heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of these people won’t be able to get some of the benefits. Some people probably won’t find a place to go after this. They say no parks, can’t live under the bridge, can’t live here, can’t live there. Where can you live?”
A tent village first settled behind the Dollar Tree in the Roseland neighborhood in 2015. Originally known as Camp Michela in honor of a slain homeless woman, it was renamed Remembrance Village last year by residents of the first encampment.
The second encampment, Last Chance Village, was formed after Santa Rosa officials shut down homeless encampments in the Highway 101 underpasses downtown.
Yet the encampments’ presence has increasingly conflicted with the county’s long-term plans to convert the roughly 7-acre site into a 175-unit apartment complex, a public plaza and more.
County officials need to clear the encampment in order to get the land ready for construction, but they’ve been reluctant to evict everyone without helping them find another place to go first.
“We don’t want to just keep kicking the can down the road,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the area. “We don’t want to just keep pushing people further to the outskirts. We actually want to come up with real solutions and actually get people into housing.”
At the housing navigation center set up inside a former hardware store, representatives of the Community Development Commission, county health programs, the Homeless Outreach Service Team and others work directly with encampment residents to address their needs, according to county officials.
“We do have a mix of available shelter beds, plus access to a handful of permanent supportive housing beds, plus some rental assistance in the form of vouchers and other things,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director. “We’re very hopeful that we have an available option for every single person.”