Homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail

Homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail

North county task force sets series of strategy meetings

For the past few years, Sonoma County’s public actions, politics and priorities have been defined by wildfires. That’s no longer the case as the year 2020 looks to be defined by homelessness. Local governments are spending millions on the intractable problem, lawsuits have been filed, a supervisorial recall election has been threatened and task forces are meeting all over the county. National TV, radio and other media outlets are descending on the county again, this time not to cover more wildfires, but to report on the county’s biggest homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail.

Last week, during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020 budget presentation he placed homelessness as his top priority and declared homelessness “the issue that will define our times.” He pledged $1.4 billion to address the need for emergency shelters, rent subsidies, inter-agency coordination and housing construction.

“This is a changing game,” county supervisor James Gore told members of the Northern Sonoma County Homelessness Planning Task Force on Jan. 10 at its most recent meeting at Healdsburg’s city hall. “We’re doing this planning and policy in ‘real time,’ because we’re being led by litigation (and real emergencies.)” 

Recent county supervisors’ work to locate housing properties and a location for a temporary indoor-outdoor homeless hub and shelter have taken place in rapid-fire, unvetted and half-scripted actions. 

“I don’t mind having this urgency in our face if that’s what it takes to get things done,” said Gore. 

Gore’s district director, Jenny Chamberlain, said Gore’s office received 400 emails the morning after a possible shelter location was announced near the county’s airport. She said almost all of the messages fit in the single category of “loud opposition.” (That site was recently eliminated due to soil contamination.)

Housing officials report there are 2,800 unsheltered people in the county with just 750 emergency beds or housing units to serve them. Besides the lack of housing, several task force members said another big contributing factor to the local homelessness picture is the fear, anger and dehumanizing responses from many in the general public. 

“We can’t really address this problem without stopping this de-humanizing,” said task force member Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper and Clean River Alliance. 

“It would be great to share some success stories,” offered Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold, who also has made homelessness one of her top priorities for 2020.

The north county task force has met twice and has at least three more meetings scheduled in February, March and April. Members include elected officials from Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, along with representatives from the sheriff’s department, public defenders office, nonprofit outreach Reach For Home and Gore’s office. 

Friday, when no representative from Windsor attended, three task force members spoke up saying Windsor officials “are in denial” about their community having a homeless problem. 

Reached after the meeting Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli took personal responsibility as mayor for not having a Windsor representative at the meeting. “We will be represented in the future and I am proud of what Windsor has done in the past with the Windsor Service Alliance and others. But this is a regional problem, not just a city issue.”

Key strategies already outlined by the task force include community engagement, street and field outreach to better identify the homeless population, and more work on better coordinating intervention, prevention and diversion tactics and programs.

The board of supervisors approved $11.67 million in December to buy housing, contract for a temporary indoor-outdoor shelter and fund various programs led by other local governments and nonprofits.

During their Jan. 14 meeting, supervisors voted unanimously on a consent calendar that included the purchase of two properties — 866 Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa (asking price $1.15 million) and 8190, 8192 and 8194 on Arthur Street in Cotati (asking price $995,000)— as shared living houses for some people living on the Joe Rodota Trail. 

Notably, virtually every citizen comment during the public comment session was against this proposal, with concerns ranging from the lack of accountability for both the county spending and the screening of potential residents, drug abuse, safety and security, non-Sonoma County residents coming in to receive services and a general sense of unfairness that other groups would be more deserving of such largesse. 

The board of supervisors also voted Tuesday to use the county-owned Los Guilicos site near the Oakmont retirement community as a temporary outdoor shelter for people living on the Joe Rodota Trail. District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district the site is in, had the dissenting vote. The shelter would only be open temporarily, until around April 30. The other option for the shelter site was off of Mendocino Avenue adjacent to a daycare and pre-school. 

Both options were met with criticism and worry in regard to the security of surrounding residents and businesses.

A community meeting will be held on Thursday, Jan. 16 with Oakmont community members and the folks who will operate the shelter site to discuss possible security measures. 

County staff said they looked at around 100 different site options and evaluated the possibility of locations with an 11-point criteria evaluation.

While some criticisms about spending millions on the homeless have been waged against the supervisors and others, Reach For Home’s Colleen Carmichael said “it does not make economic sense to any of us to have these people living on the streets.” 

Kathleen Pozzi, of the public defender’s office reminded the assembled that it costs a minimum of $189 per day to house a person in the county jail. Concurring, Tim Duke, a sheriff’s lieutenant said, “I guess we are in a triage moment right now.”

Chuck Mottern, of the county’s homelessness program said past temporary successes followed by repeated failures “works against us. We need an exit strategy.”

The north county’s homeless population is spread in small encampments from south of Windsor, along creeks and Highway 101 landscaping and river camps all the way north to Cloverdale. Chris Brokate, who collects trash at the camps for Clean River Alliance guesses the population is 300-450, though the Northern Sonoma County Homelessness Planning Task Force puts the number at 248, with 73 in Healdsburg, 59 in Cloverdale, 53 in Windsor and 63 in the unincorporated areas. 

The annual “point-in-time” official homeless county will take place on Jan. 31.

Reach For Home has outreach workers, a “street medicine” program and volunteers working in all the north county communities. Windsor Service Alliance offers free meals and clothing at its location on Windsor River Road and Cloverdale Mayor Gus Wolter pointed out that Cloverdale’s St. Paul’s church works with St. Vincent DePaul to offer weekly food handouts and program navigation services. Healdsburg’s Shared Ministries and several civic clubs also offer volunteer help, clothing donations and funding grants.

Meanwhile the pending dispersal and relocation of the homeless people at the Joe Rodota Trail set to begin before the end of this month will continue to grab headlines and stir emotions and public protests. County homelessness workers predict 40-60 “hardcore” homeless people will resist any relocation, but a big majority will welcome safer and cleaner quarters like the temporary indoor-outdoor shelter.

“We all agree that a ‘housing first’ program is the best approach,” said Gore. “But if there is no housing, it ain’t happening.” 

Michael Gause of the county’s homelessness program endorsed the housing first model, adding, “If we could serve this population with housing, we’d save lots of resources," including extra law enforcement, fire calls, agency coordination and litigation expenses.

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