By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The southern tip of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds would be made temporarily available for homeless people to sleep in their vehicles under an emergency plan that county supervisors will consider on Tuesday.
Separately, the supervisors will be asked to approve changes to county ordinances that would make it legal to sleep overnight in vehicles in unincorporated areas of the county. It is now illegal to do that for more than three hours.
The emergency plan, designed for the cold and, normally, rainy season, also includes funding for about 1,000 motel room vouchers to be used over the three-month period. It would cost $129,695.
The most recent census of homeless people in Sonoma County, in January 2013, found that of 4,300 people who are homeless countywide, 837 lived in 444 vehicles.
Advocates who have long argued that homeless people should be allowed to sleep in their cars welcomed the developments.
“People will be much safer all around,” said Linda R. Picton of the Dorothy Day Working Group, which grew out of the 2012 Occupy movement and has pushed for fewer restrictions on where homeless people can sleep.
“It’s a major step in the right direction; it’s wonderful news,” said Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless.
“It will allow people to sleep in their cars, which is in many cases the last protected place they have,” she said. “Secondly, it doesn’t criminalize people for being homeless.”
The fairgrounds proposal, dubbed “safe vehicle parking,” would run from Feb. 1 to March 30 and could be extended another month. It would make space for 50 vehicles in a large grassy area formerly used as an RV lot and located between Meda, Brookwood and Linwood avenues, south of the main fairgrounds property.
“I will definitely go check it out, definitely,” said Alex Averbuck, a 1988 El Molino High School graduate who said he has lived in his 1995 Infiniti for a year, since his unemployment benefits ran out.
“It’s another place to stay that’s safe, where you’re not going to be harassed by the police,” said Averbuck, 43, speaking Friday in Railroad Square.
The fairgrounds location, with homes on three sides, has a building with rest-rooms and showers that could be used by those spending the night. No cooking would be allowed, but Catholic Charities, which would run the program, would provide a hot meal, officials said.
“The intent is not to have people camping there,” said Kathleen Kane, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, which would use remaining redevelopment funds to pay for the parking program and vouchers for the homeless.
“They’ll come in in the evening, go out in the morning, and conduct their life during the day somewhere else,” she said.
Discussions about revising the laws prohibiting sleeping in vehicles have been underway for some time, but they took on added urgency in December with a string of freezing nights that emphasized the dangers people face sleeping outside.
Earlier this month, supervisors approved spending $179,750 to add shelter beds and also move people into permanent housing. They also asked for a set of additional emergency measures to be developed.
The new proposal thus is likely to find broad support.
“I don’t see us moving in any other direction,” board Chairman David Rabbitt said Friday.
“Especially on cold nights, we should not be kicking people out of cars, which are warmer, when they have no place to go,” he said.
Catholic Charities, one of the county’s two largest homeless service providers, would manage both the parking and voucher programs. People wanting to use the fairgrounds property overnight would register at the nonprofit’s Homeless Services Center on Morgan Street and be given a one-night pass.
“It will be first-come, first-serve,” said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities director of shelter and housing.
Prospective overnight guests would be assessed on a “behavior-based model,” she said.
“We wouldn’t necessarily test for drug or alcohol use, but we would be carefully monitoring their behavior,” Holmes said.
The Homeless Services Center has operated sporadic nights of emergency overnight parking for clients since December, when temperatures have dropped especially low. Holmes said the consistent availability of parking options would be useful.
“Right now, we don’t have the resources to do it consistently, so it’s hard for people to know when it is,” she said. “Getting the appropriate resources will allow us to operate it regularly, and if it’s approved by the board, there will be a pretty robust campaign to let people know this is happening.”
Similar communications will take place with neighbors if the plan goes through, said Mark Krug, the Community Development Commission’s community development manager.
“If in fact we have a site and a program after Tuesday, we’ll do outreach after that time,” Krug said. Initial talks have been held with the Santa Rosa Police Department.
“We’ll be in constant communication and we’ll address things if they come up,” said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ray Navarro. “But we don’t expect anything unusual or out of the ordinary.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose 3rd District takes in the proposed site, said the action would be a start but only that.
“It provides a short-term solution, or what I call a downstream solution, to a real problem, which is you shouldn’t be criminalized because you’re homeless, period,” Zane said. “We really need to be working and investing in the longterm solutions.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.