Council shifts gears on homelessparking

Narrow majority green-lights use of council's parking spaces for pilot program|

A mere three months after a proposed homeless parking program appeared to be running on fumes, the Sonoma City Council on Monday directed staff to prepare a plan to allocate five city-owned parking spaces for people living in their vehicles to safely park overnight.

Not only that, but the recommended parking spaces are those behind the Community Meeting Room – traditionally used by the city councilmembers themselves.

“Wonders never cease,” was how Kathy King described it in an email to homeless advocates following the meeting. King is the director of Sonoma Overnight Support, the nonprofit that runs the Haven homeless shelter on at 151 First St. W., and the leading voice in the call for a safe-parking program in Sonoma.

The proposal, first brought to the council by King in June, would designate five parking spaces in the city owned parking lot near the Haven for people living in vehicles to sleep safely from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Participants would be vetted and registered by Haven staff. The program would begin on a three-month trial basis.

While the city’s move toward a safe-parking pilot program was a clear win for the safe-parking advocates of Sonoma Overnight Support, it remains a tenuous victory. The council was divided 3-2 in its support for the program’s trial period taking place at the city-owned location, with councilmembers David Cook and Gary Edwards voting against allocating the five parking spaces on First Street West.

Even with the slim-majority council approval, the program will require the council to amend the city ordinance which prohibits camping in cars, and then pass further scrutiny as city staff presents a more detailed vision of the program for the council to consider.

Still, it was quite a shift in the safe-parking winds from June, when the proposal was initially vetted before the council and only councilmember Rachel Hundley effused enthusiasm for the program. In contrast, on Monday the Community Meeting Room was filled with Sonoma residents answering a clarion call – likely sounded by King – to voice their support for granting the program a trial period.

As it happened, the first person to rise during the public comment portion of the meeting was the lone speaker that night opposed to the proposal.

“Desperate times call for desperate acts,” said Denise Ewings, a Sonoma resident who owns a vacation rental in the neighborhood. Ewings described a hypothetical situation in which homeless families parking safely in the lot would invite other homeless families to join them in the lot for barbecues. “Is the City of Sonoma going to take any responsibility?” she asked.

Cindy Vrooman, a boardmember of Sonoma Overnight Support, said the program would help alleviate the very concerns people have with the homeless who are already in the neighborhood or sleeping in the nearby open space.

“Every human being should have a safe place to sleep, a place to go to the bathroom, and a place to be warm,” said Vrooman.

The proposal for a safe-parking program in Sonoma was inspired by other such programs in the county – nearly all in Santa Rosa – run through Catholic Charities.

Matthew Mouille, director of mobile outreach for Catholic Charities, described to the council how his organization assists nonprofits to set up their own “franchise” of the program.

“I can’t speak enough to the benefits of this program and the people it helps,” said Mouille.

One such person, a woman named Loretta, said she’d been in a Santa Rosa safe-parking program for nine months and detailed the vetting process for being accepted into a safe-parking lot. “It’s a good program in Santa Rosa,” she said.

There are currently about 80 such safe parking places in Sonoma County, serving up to 120 individuals. Catholic Charities has been the contractor for the program since early in 2015 through the Community Development Commission. Cost estimates for SOS to run the program at its First Street West location are about $2,000, an amount which former Sonoma City Councilmember Larry Barnett offered to cover.

“If (the council) will approve the location, I will put up the $2,000 and we can give this program a try,” said Barnett. “I’ll be happy to write the check.”

Not to be outdone, Sandy Piotter, coordinator of Friends in Sonoma Helping, said FISH would pay for any portable toilets needed for the program.

Both challengers currently running for Sonoma City Council urged the council to give the program a trial run, with candidate Amy Harrington calling attention to local homeless who take cover in blackberry bushes.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that is NOT happening here,” said Harrington. “That’s wrong.”

Candidate Jack Wagner stressed that SOS was only asking the council to approve the program for a three-month trial basis. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” said Wagner.

The strong show of public support for the program was enough to convince councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti and Mayor Laurie Gallian to join Hundley in a majority vote to move forward with launching the program behind the Community Meeting Room.

“There’s a lot of nervousness and fear,” Hundley said about prospect of homeless in the downtown. “But they’re already here, trying to find some dark, quiet place to be.”

Agrimonti was adamant she wanted a “consortium” of community members to take responsibility for the program, “not just Kathy King.”

Gallian said she would “gladly give up her council parking spaces” for the program.

Councilmembers Edwards and Cook composed the ad hoc Facilities Committee assigned with researching similar safe-parking programs in the county, and in June had promised to visit Catholic Charities programs in Santa Rosa to see how they were facilitated. However, Cook said after the meeting, only Edwards visited the Santa Rosa programs and “did the homework” on both of their behalves.

Cook and Edwards remain skeptical. Both prefer finding churches willing to put their greater resources toward hosting a safe-parking program.

Cook said five parking spaces wasn’t enough to serve the needs of the Valley’s vehicular-housed and argued that approving the handful of safe parking spaces would be a step back for the larger issue of homelessness.

“I know homelessness is a problem, but this isn’t a quick fix,” said Cook. “By voting yes tonight the discussion is going to end.”

Whether the larger discussion ends remains to be seen. But the council’s discussion that night ended at around 10 p.m. - with the council voting 3-2 to direct staff to return with a proposal to assign a temporary use permit for SOS to implement the safe-parking program at the south side of the Community Meeting Room, in addition to amending the camping code to allow for the overnight use.

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