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Los Guilicos temporary shelter

Posted: January 16, 2020

Sonoma County supervisors made a bold decision on Dec. 23, when they decided to add nearly $12 million to their homeless service budgets in reaction to a growing humanitarian and community crisis along the Joe Rodota Trail.

Three weeks later, led by 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, they timidly changed their stance. Gone was the bold determination from the eve of Christmas Eve. Silent was the call for unity in response to crisis. Absent was the political courage to make difficult, necessary decisions.

“This is a lousy decision,” said south-county Supervisor David Rabbitt, “and we’re picking the better of two lousy choices.”

Those are not words that instill confidence in a community that is looking toward its elected leaders to respond to the acute need for alternatives to the tent village along the Rodota Trail. Those are not words that will bring comfort to Supervisor Susan Gorin, or her constituents in Oakmont and the Sonoma Valley, where a new homeless shelter is slated to open in the coming days.

I’ve been asked repeatedly this week where I stand on this issue. I laid out my positions in some detail on Dec. 5, prior to the Board of Supervisors’ heightened involvement in the issue. You can read that here.

Since then, the supervisors have added some additional elements to the discussion, and people want to know my thoughts on those, as well. I know that some of these thoughts may cost me votes in the March 3 election. But unlike our incumbent 3rd District supervisor, who jettisoned three out of the four homeless assistance proposals that would have been created in our district, I believe that finding real solutions is more important than chasing votes.

Let me start with some background. There are at least 225 people living along the Rodota Trail. They live in cold, wet squalor. Their health and safety is compromised by inadequate sanitation, drug use, predatory behavior, fires and more. The nearby neighborhoods’ health and safety are likewise at risk. The trail, a public right-of-way for recreation and transportation, has been posted as unsafe for passage by the general public.

This is absolutely unacceptable on a number of levels, and those who demand that local government “clear the trail” make a reasonable request.

But it’s not that simple, legally or practically.

The federal courts, in a case known as the “Boise” decision for the Idaho city where it was filed and a subsequent ruling from a San Francisco judge in a suit brought by homeless advocates against Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, have ruled that homeless individuals have the right to live on public property unless local governments provide alternatives. Note the plural. It’s not enough for local government to offer space in a shelter, such as Sam Jones Hall in Santa Rosa — not far from the encampment. Local government must provide options beyond cots in a gymnasium. Local government must accommodate the needs of individuals who, for various reasons, need more privacy than is available at Sam Jones, or more security, or an ability to live with a partner or a group.

Local government needs to provide more options. Until then, the trail can’t legally be “cleared.”

You may not like that news, but it is the reality in which our county — and the city of Santa Rosa and every other city and county in the western US that is dealing with this problem — operates right now.

So let’s talk about those options. In my Dec. 5 piece I suggested creating a multi-option shelter where people could be housed in a semi-rigid tent structure with heating and cooling, or park their cars or RVs on site to take advantage of bathrooms and showers, a dining facility and a navigation center providing services ranging from housing assistance, to help with addiction, to job referrals. I proposed a partnership between the city and county that would set this up on public property, such as parking lots around the Santa Rosa Veterans Building and Sonoma County Fairgrounds and vacant land at the County Administration Center in north Santa Rosa.

County staff actually suggested some of these options when the supervisors took up the issue later in December. Supervisor Zane quickly shot down any discussion of the Fairgrounds option. But she voted along with the rest of the Board when they approved nearly $12 million to address the issue on Dec. 23, a plan that included additional shelters, but also other “options” such as purchasing large houses for “congregate living” arrangements.

That was fine until details started to emerge. Neighbors of houses targeted for purchase complained about potential impacts in their neighborhoods. Neighbors of suggested shelter sites worried that the problems of the Rodota Trail would be transferred to their part of town.

Let’s pause right there. No one plans to “move” the Rodota encampment to a new spot. The idea here is to create new shelter options that protect the health and safety of the people who live in them and the people who live near them. These facilities will have rules, security and professional management. They will not be “Rodota v.2.”

County supervisors need to do a better job of conveying that message. Referring to their new shelters as “lousy choices” is a lousy way to start.

I get it. Why should we trust the county to do a good job in creating safe and secure shelters that won’t negatively impact neighborhoods? They haven’t done this before, and their efforts in the past several weeks have been less than convincing.

But the reality is the county needs to do something —  and probably several somethings. The alternative likely is an even bigger encampment on the trail, a bigger humanitarian crisis, a bigger public outcry for solutions.

If we want solutions, we need to provide them and we need to live with them. We need to hold the county — and the city, once the two entities realize that neither can do it alone — accountable for creating shelters and housing options that are safe, well-managed and not detrimental to neighborhoods.

County staff told supervisors this week there are 60 homes around the county being used for “congregate living.” There may be one in your neighborhood. These facilities work. They are an important step on the path from homelessness to independent living for hundreds of individuals.

On the other hand, the indoor-outdoor shelter concept is new in Sonoma County. Putting it at the county’s Los Guilicos facility, next to Juvenile Hall and the Valley of the Moon Children’s Center, wasn’t so much of a lousy choice as it was a lousy decision. It’s far from any services and has limited transportation options. The better decision would have been to start by opening a smaller one somewhere on the County Administration Center campus (there are other options that aren’t next to the day-care center). Security there is easier, services are closer, public transportation is available. Prove you can do it right, and then find places for more.

Perhaps most important, a shelter at the county center is something the supervisors would see every day — keeping them more aware and invested in its success.

But they chose not to put it in their own back yard.

Lousy decision.

Paid for by Chris Coursey for Supervisor 2020
1275 Fourth Street #279, Santa Rosa, CA 95404
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