Joe Rodota trail

The county delivered portable toilets to the Joe Rodota Trail in November.

Board to review potential shelter, navigation options at special meeting next week

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors made several moves to address the issue of homelessness at its Dec. 17 meeting. The board adopted a resolution proclaiming “a homeless emergency” on the Joe Rodota Trail, due to threats to health and safety. It also gave $25,000 to the county’s Community Development Commission (CDC) to conduct outreach to individuals experiencing homelessness on the Joe Rodota Trail. 

Homeless advocates and residents from the neighborhoods around the Joe Rodota Trail had come to the meeting eager to hear the county’s proposals for solving the problem of homelessness on the trail, but the broader solutions discussion was moved to a later date — Monday, Dec. 23— to give county staff more time to explore all the options.  

The population of homeless people in Sonoma County this year has reached 2,951 people, according to the 2019 Sonoma County Point-in-Time Homeless Count. And, while the CDC has housed 3,000 homeless people in the last three years, with 95% remaining in stable housing for at least one year, the homelessness issue is still pervasive according to Geoffrey Ross, executive director for the CDC.

“While we have made significant progress, we don’t have to look far to see that there is a lot left we have to do,” Ross said.

The large village of tents that popped up along the Joe Rodota Trail has brought a slew of health and safety issues, due to a lack of bathroom sanitation and drug use.

“The conditions of the encampment have created a public health crisis for the county,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services.

Robinson and Ross explained various options for expanded outreach and aid to homeless individuals. A few of the options Ross mentioned include: 

• Ongoing outreach with COTS, Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) and other nonprofits.

• Improving trail security.

• Activating a joint operations center.

• Creating safe parking sites.

• Creating a family reunification program.

• Using master leasing for rental buildings.

• Subsidizing public or private campground sites. 

• Using rapid rehousing. 

• Expanding shelters with lockers and kennels for people with pets.

• Consider using a vacant lot near The Living Room Center off of Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa as a place for shelter. 

Robinson called the recommended actions and plans a “bold and ambitious call to action for our department and for the community departments that work with us.”

She spoke on eight key actions that would take place over the next 100 days.

“We are recommending that we implement a multi-pronged approach that includes permanent supportive housing, indoor/outdoor sheltering, a navigation center coupled with a range of social and medical and behavioral health services, and we this strategy within a 100-day time frame,” Robinson said. 

The eight key actions include the following:

1. Direct departments to enter into a use agreement for a vacant site by Dec. 30.  

2. Launch procurement for providers to expand master leases by Dec. 30.

3. Close sale by Jan. 31. 

4. Enter into contracts with a full service partnership that will provide intensive wrap-around mental health services by Dec. 30. 

5. Launch the Joe Rodota Trail cohort and the Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self-Sufficiency (ACCESS) Sonoma County initiative (see side bar) to begin collaborative care coordination for placement and support of housing. 

6. Execute a release for street medical services to meet people where they are.

7. Convene with community partners to develop indoor and outdoor shelter sites by Jan. 2 

8. Care coordination across the safety net system via the ACCESS Initiative and the Joe Rodota Trail cohort.

Initial board questions 

District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins asked how many people staff think would actually make use of the suite of options.

There isn’t a clear answer — Ross said that people always have the option to reject help for a variety of reasons such as wanting to remain in the community.

Other board members, including District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane, asked about the proposed use of the vacant lot off of Cleveland Avenue and Carrillo Street.

Robinson said the site is a clean site with capabilities for water and other utility hookups.

While board members recognized the need for housing, many were concerned about having one large center in one place, fearing that the site would just become another camping area. They preferred the idea of having smaller housing and navigation centers that could be sprinkled across the county.

Other proposed solutions 

There were around 25 speakers during the lengthy and impassioned public comment period. While some speakers simply focused their comments on imploring the board to do something about the Joe Rodota Trail, others offered some unique solutions.

The Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition had a contingent of speakers discuss the group’s idea for a temporary emergency housing facility and services at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Their proposal, called “Pilot Rose,” is an “Emergency housing pilot with capacity to safely shelter up to 150 people with wrap-around service provision,” according to the proposal document.  Pilot Rose would provide 96 secure, individual living spaces “complete with electricity, a neighboring private and secured storage area, and a locking door. In addition, Pilot Rose includes a sheltered space for tents with an estimated capacity of 30 and an outdoor transitory tent area with capacity for 24. Surrounding and populating these dwelling areas are a full range of services, including toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities, waste disposal, common area, pet recreation area, warming area, dining tent, detox tent, medical tent, on-site navigation and temporary structures for social workers, screening and support services and other governmental outreach.”

Sonoma County Fairgrounds CEO Becky Bartling expressed concern about having a hard time getting people to leave if the site were to act as temporary shelter. She said while the FEMA trailers were at the fairgrounds following the 2017 fires there were about 20 people who created issues, whether it was fraudulently getting in the trailers or drug use.

“There are people that need services and my heart breaks for people who want to get help, but the security is number one. The exit gate is also a concern,” Bartling said. “When people are settled, they do not want to leave. I’m concerned based on experiences that I’ve had.”

Sebastopol builder Miguel Elliot suggested constructing cob homes, smaller structures made out of a natural mixture of earth, sand and straw.

Others suggested using tiny homes or homes made from large shipping containers.

Next step

Hopkins said it would be good to have more time to review the various solutions, although she acknowledged the extreme level of urgency in addressing homelessness.

“It is important to acknowledge that this is a crisis,” she said. “We need to wake up and take this moment to say that this is not acceptable and it is not OK and it is not OK to see a Hooverville spread out on a vast portion of public property.”

District 4 Supervisor James Gore echoed Hopkins’ thoughts and said his biggest concern is inaction.

Board members and county staff will return for a special board meeting on Monday, Dec. 23, to explore these and other options. The meeting will take place at the county Administration Center at 575 Administration Dr. and will start at 9 a.m.

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