By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County is tweaking a novel program, launched amid last winter’s freezing weather, that allows homeless people to spend the night in their cars at the county fairgrounds.
The safe parking program, which started Feb. 3 and served 130 vehicles through Tuesday, proved costly for the county and for the homeless, whose average monthly income per vehicle was $912, officials said.
The venture was also controversial among some residents near the fairgrounds, who decried the county’s offer of overnight stays for the homeless in their Santa Rosa neighborhood.
A new concept — providing parking at scattered sites around the county, including church parking lots — addresses both issues and was approved Tuesday on a unanimous vote by the Board if Supervisors.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane hailed the fairgrounds parking program as a success, noting that 27 percent of the homeless who participated had never before received homeless services.
Among the people living in their cars are those “who at one point were solid, middle-class citizens,” Zane said. The population includes seniors and the disabled.
A survey by Catholic Charities, which runs the program, found that 38 percent of the participants were homeless for the first time.
But the budgeted $90,953 three-month cost of the fairgrounds program works out to $363,812 a year, or roughly $1,000 a day, according to a Community Development Commission report to the supervisors.
There were never more than 37 vehicles at the fairgrounds, which had a capacity for 50 vehicles, and the average attendance was 18 vehicles, the report said.
The scattered sites program will cost $100,000 to $200,000 a year, community development manager Mark Krug said.
Homeless participants said the cost of gasoline posed a hardship in getting to the fairgrounds, he said.
“Ten dollars in gas can be a big deal,” Krug said, noting that gas costs up to $4 a gallon.
Under the scattered sites plan, homeless people — especially those living in areas outside Santa Rosa — would have easier access to overnight parking, officials said.
The new plan underscores the principle “of meeting the clients where they are,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.
The charity expects to enroll two Santa Rosa churches in the homeless parking program and is looking for other partners around the county, Holmes said.
Parking at the fairgrounds will end April 30, and the supervisors granted Catholic Charities the authority to spend $30,000 to $40,000 in the transition to the scattered sites program.
Anyone who needs a place to park during the transition can use the Homeless Services Center on Morgan Street, which can accommodate 45 vehicles, Holmes said.
Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, endorsed the scattered sites plan, which provides the homeless with restrooms and showers.
“We’re glad you are doing it here in Sonoma County,” Berland said, noting the program has succeeded in other communities.
A survey last year counted 4,300 homeless people in the county, including 837 living in vehicles.
Along with the safe parking program, Sonoma County rescinded its ban on people sleeping in cars, a step that Santa Rosa took, as well.
“The cops can’t bother you,” Pershing John “Pineapple” Diacamos said on the February night the fairgrounds parking area opened to him and a companion living in his 1997 Ford van.
But residents near the parking site south of Aston and Linwood avenues, between Meda and Brookwood avenues, expressed concern in February about safety and lack of input they had in selecting the site.
“We feel this is being crammed down our throats,” Betsy Corbin, a Meda Avenue resident, said at the time.
Zane said the county had acted quickly due to the urgency of the situation.
Holmes said individuals, organizations or business interested in providing a site may call her at 542-5426.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or email@example.com.