Santa Rosa considering homeless services on city properties

Originally published in the Press Democrat on Democrat 17, 2016 By Kevin McCallum.

Santa Rosa is trying to make it easier for churches and other private groups to use their properties to shelter the homeless.

But the city, which declared a homeless emergency in August, has yet to offer up any of its parking lots, fields, parks or empty buildings for that purpose.

That could change Monday when the city’s homelessness subcommittee meets to discuss, among other things, whether any public lands or buildings should be used to expand its homeless services this winter.

“We’ve declared a homeless emergency,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs. “We need to act like it’s an emergency.”

The city already operates Sam Jones Hall, which has 138 beds year-round, plus up to an additional 50 in the winter.

It also is spending $500,000 this year on a homeless outreach program that seeks to connect people with services they need, including housing.

This year it also expanded the Community Homeless Assistance Program, or CHAP, to allow groups with properties suitable for public assembly, such as churches and granges, to offer new services to the homeless, including on-site camping.

The First United Methodist Church was the first organization to step forward to participate, proposing to let up to 20 people who are receiving services from Catholic Charities camp in a field behind their church on Stony Point Road.

Neighbors are up in arms and gave the City Council an earful on Tuesday. They vowed to do so again Monday at the subcommittee meeting.

“We’re going to fight this at every turn,” said neighbor Herb Dickerson.

“It’s not going to go away. I don’t think they understand how important an issue this is to the community,” Dickerson said.

Mayor Chris Coursey said Tuesday the church and the neighbors had “gotten off on the wrong foot” because the church’s poor communication of its plans “made what was going to be a difficult conversation anyway a lot more difficult.”

But he sought to reassure them the city wasn’t allowing a “Hooverville” to be set up across the street from their homes. He viewed it as the first of what he hoped would be several modest, well-managed camping areas around the city.

“It’s intended to be a temporary respite during an emergency for people who are homeless now but on a path to getting their own home,” Coursey said.

Both new council members also expressed support for the program.

Jack Tibbetts said he hoped the correct information got out about what he viewed as a closely regulated program, which he called “wonderful.”

“I think it has an important role to serve in the city,” Tibbetts said.

Chris Rogers, too, supported a program he viewed as a solution to a citywide problem. He said the church’s neighbors shouldn’t feel like they are being singled out. He said he lives in the Burbank Gardens neighborhood and walks regularly through Rae Park, which is a homeless hangout.

“I do feel like I already do have one of these in my neighborhood,” Rogers said.

It’s not clear if the subcommittee will get through its busy agenda Monday to make a recommendation to the council in January.

But Combs, who will chair the meeting in Ernesto Olivares’ absence, said she already has had conversations with city staff about whether potential properties could be used to provide homeless services, including the former fire station on Parker Hill Road, a parking lot near the Finley Center, and areas of Galvin Park in her neighborhood in Bennett Valley.

The fire station, the former Station 5, was previously reviewed and deemed by facilities staff to be unsuitable because of access issues, said Dave Gouin, director of the city’s Housing and Community Services Department. He said the homeless emergency does not trump federal Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

Combs said she is frustrated that a program she hoped would help vulnerable people get out of the cold, wet weather is stalled.

“It’s sad for everyone that we aren’t further along than we are right now, but that is not a reason to stop,” Combs said. “That’s a reason to keep going.”

The subcommittee meeting takes place in the City Council Chambers from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

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

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