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Homeless parking program extended through June in Sonoma

The Sonoma City Council this week extended the First Street West safe-parking program for people living in vehicles – and also hired outside help to confront the broader issue of homelessness in Sonoma.

The nonprofit Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS) has hosted its Safe Parking Program since 2019 at the city-owned parking lot at 175 First St. W., a lot shared by City Council Chambers, the Sonoma Police Department and the Field of Dreams youth sports fields. The program provides 10 spaces for people living in their vehicles to park safely from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m., with on-site security during evening hours.

But unease about the homeless-parking program sharing space with youth sports fields has existed among some community members and city officials for years, with some parents describing the two parking lot uses as incompatible. In December of 2021, the council extended the use of the lot to SOS through March and directed city staff to work with the nonprofit in finding potential alternate locations for it to operate.

But as the end of March approaches, SOS and city staff haven’t found a viable location for relocating the program.

“We continue to look for a site in building or land and we have so far been unsuccessful,” SOS Executive Director Kathy King told the council at its March 16 meeting. “We understand we have outgrown what we need, but we need to provide compassionate service to people who their homes are their cars.”

Throughout the search for a new location, King has stressed that in addition to safe parking, the nonprofit is hoping to find a site suitable for its wraparound services – showers, laundry and access to meals, public transit and a case manager. Currently, SOS’s meal service is operated at the Springs Community Hall, at 18627 Highway 12. According to SOS, the nonprofit served 54,940 meals in 2021.

“We’ve been looking very hard (for a location),” SOS board member Judith Walsh told the council. “We need to be able to put all of our services together and to have them in a place where people will come -and that’s probably in the Springs.

SOS and representatives of the nonprofit Field of Dreams met jointly recently to find common ground on a possible extension of the Safe Parking Program through June.

Field manager Russ Montgomery, speaking Wednesday on behalf of the Field of Dreams board of directors, said the nonprofit would support an extension of SOS’s use of the parking lot through June, but under “the assumption that come 90 days, there’s going to be a resolution to this issue.”

He described the Field of Dreams board as representing a “silent majority” in town who expect “some action in 90 days.”

To help find a resolution to the plight of the Safe Parking Program, and grapple with other issues of homelessness in Sonoma, city staff recommended the hiring of consultant Andrew Henings who, City Manager Sue Casey said, has helped cities in “measurably reducing homelessness, spurring civic innovation and redesigning systems of care for vulnerable community members.”

Henings will be contracted from April 1 to June 30 to analyze Sonoma’s systems for homeless care and offer recommendations. The consultant fee will not exceed $24,000, Casey said.

Members of the council were in support of contracting with Henings and voted 3-1-1 to extend the use of the lot for the Safe Parking Program through June 30, with Councilmember Bob Felder against and Kelso Barnett not in attendance.

In describing his opposition, Felder said he didn’t want to take action until the council received feedback from Henings - but Casey pointed out that Henings hasn’t yet started his analysis and any recommendations would come at the end of the 90-day contract.

“We extended in December for 120 days and made virtually no progress - and now we’re facing it again for another 90 days with the optimism that some magic solution is going to appear and we’ll take care of the problem,” said Felder. “So I guess I’m a bit skeptical on that.”

Councilmember Sandra Lowe, however, said she was encouraged by the meetings between SOS and the Field of Dreams and that coming to a consensus that the First Street West parking lot is incompatible for homeless services and youth sports is a necessary step toward finding a permanent solution.

“I think with SOS having that meeting and admitting this is something that needs to change, it will change,” said Lowe.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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