Sonoma County to Purchase 2 Houses for Residents of Homeless Camp on Santa Rosa Trail

In Sonoma County, officials are struggling to address a homeless encampment of roughly 200 people along a bike trail.  (Eric Westervelt/NPR)

In an effort to provide housing to a handful of the roughly 200 people living in a sprawling homeless encampment along a bike trail in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of two multi-unit properties.

“I think that it’s a critical step in the right direction,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the encampment. She noted, however, that it was just one step in a much larger effort. “I think it’s really important to recognize that two homes are not going to solve the crisis of homelessness that we’re currently experiencing in Sonoma County.”

The county is buying the two homes — located on Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa and Arthur Street in Cotati — for just over $2.1 million, including furniture, the board said. Both properties have two bedrooms and additional detached units.

That money comes from the roughly $5 million the county recently allocated from the state's “No Place Like Home” program, and an additional $1 million from its own general fund, which it plans to use to purchase up to five shared housing properties.

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The board on Monday announced that it will not purchase a third property it had been considering due to cost and time constraints that arose during the inspection process.

The county said it will continue looking for more homes to purchase over a wide geographical area. “It’s not fair to sort of concentrate all of the homeless-serving facilities in just one neighborhood,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said residents will move in “hopefully in a matter of months,” but noted that the county still has to furnish the homes and select its occupants. It is still unclear how many people the properties will accommodate.

The county's interdepartmental multi-disciplinary team, part of the Department of Health Services, which provides wraparound supportive homeless services, will interview people living on the trail and provide housing recommendations.

For months, makeshift tents and tarps have filled a stretch of the paved Joe Rodota Trail that runs alongside Highway 12, a major commuter artery through Santa Rosa, the county seat.

A January point-in-time homeless count reported 2,951 homeless residents in the county, an increase of more than 100 since the 2017 count.

Escalating public concern over the trail’s unsanitary conditions, including vermin and discarded drug needles, was echoed during the meeting's public comment period. For over an hour, county residents cited concerns over costs and safety, among other things, in a bid to convince supervisors not to purchase the homes.

Florida Dates, a 30-year Santa Rosa resident and longtime landlord, objected to the purchase of the property in her city. During her time in the area, she’s lived in her car and given up a pet in order to find a place to rent, she said.

“We all make decisions in our lives. These people have a long way to go before they deserve to get in a historic house, a beautiful home,” she said. “I just don’t see the economics of it — up-front cost and continued maintenance.”

But this isn't a new idea. The county has already purchased 60 shared housing units for people experiencing homelessness, a model Hopkins said has proven to be a “really effective” step in helping people become self-sufficient.

“It will help a lot more than just the initial folks who move in, because the goal is to actually get those folks to move out and into self-supported affordable housing from there,” Hopkins said.

Opposition to these kinds of projects, Hopkins added, is also nothing new.

“Sometimes they cause a stir when they first go in, because people are concerned, but those concerns often wind up ameliorated by successful management,” Hopkins said.

The board on Tuesday also voted to confirm Barbie Robinson, the county health services director, as interim head of the Community Development Commission, which oversees homeless services. She will replace Geoffrey Ross, who announced his resignation last week.

Robinson has received praise from supervisors, including Hopkins, for working alongside Ross to craft a plan to use $12 million in emergency funds to help residents of the encampment.

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Following intense public discussion, the board also selected the location for a new outdoor shelter on the northern end of Sonoma Valley, where some of the trail's residents will camp alongside a navigation trailer with supportive services. It will equip people with “fundamental human needs,” such as restrooms, electricity, water and, ideally, shower and laundry facilities, Hopkins told KQED’s Forum on Friday.

“At the end of the day it’s about having a continuum of care. It’s about having a suite of different housing options,” Hopkins said. “Not everyone is ready to walk into a house.“

Some community groups have also stepped up to support additional wraparound service for residents of the encampment.

Miles Sarvis-Wilburn, a co-founder of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, one such volunteer group, said he supports the home purchases, but stressed that other options are needed, as the county can't simply buy homes for all of its homeless people.

“We also remain skeptical, and rightfully so, that such an approach is not scalable,” Sarvis-Wilburn said. “It’s not a long-term viable solution for everyone, but we support it as a part of a larger more diverse solution.”