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Homeless shelter to re-launch safe-parking program

Call it: Homeless parking 2.0.

That’s how Sonoma City Councilmember Rachel Hundley described a new iteration of a program to allow people living in their vehicles to park overnight in the city-owned lot at the end of First Street West in downtown Sonoma.

The city had piloted a “safe parking program” at the 177 First St. W. lot in 2017, but pulled the plug on it after two months due to a lack of participation. But a recent influx of vehicle-dwelling residents in the area has re-cast a spotlight on finding a suitable place for such homeless to park safely through the night.

“Having a program that is structured and regulated is better than not having one at all,” said Hundley at the City Council’s Oct. 21 meeting at Council Chambers.

The lot is adjacent to the Haven homeless shelter, operated by the homeless-services nonprofit Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), which shares the lot with the Sonoma Police Department, City Council Chambers, the Field of Dreams and a youth ball field. SOS would both operate the program and cover its costs.

Kathy King, executive director of SOS, told the council the nonprofit has served 91 day-service clients in September – a 72 percent increase over September of 2018. She said 36 of those 91 live in their cars – half of those are over age 50, and four of those clients are in their 70s.

“They live in their car because they feel safe there,” said King. “They want to live with their pets – some of them have numerous pets – they want to live with their spouses, they don’t want to be separated in a shelter.”

King said many of them hold jobs. “And in order to keep their jobs in Sonoma they use the facilities at SOS to change and shower and get fed,” King said, estimating that eight to 10 cars are parked in the lot per night currently.

Longtime Sonoma resident Heather Christiansen also spoke on behalf of SOS, saying that, as a homeless person herself, “If I didn’t have Miss Kathy (King), I don’t know where I’d be.”

“I just want everybody to know here in this town, I’m not a drug addict, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a human being and I lost my house,” said Christiansen, 51. “I am homeless, but I work and I eat and I’m fine, but I don’t want to live in my truck. This community needs to work more together to make everything OK for everybody. And not just for the rich people, but for every human being.”

The increase in the number of homeless frequenting the parking lot outside the Haven has raised eyebrows, however. Fred Fegan, who operates the nonprofit Field of Dreams, told the Index-Tribune prior to the meeting that he often has to remove human feces from the grounds he oversees and his raising the issue with city officials has proven ineffective.

Sonoma resident Rebecca Delorifice said during the public comment period at the council meeting that she is concerned about the homeless shelter’s proximity to the youth sports fields.

“It makes me nervous. I have two little girls,” Delorifice said. “I want them to be able to ride their bikes around freely, go to the park, and it makes me very nervous that we could have a facility that is maybe not as safe.”

Delorifice questioned whether SOS would be adequately staffed to monitor program clients for inclusion on the Megan’s Law list of registered sex offenders, and enforce program rules and requirements.

“My main concern is my kids,” she said.

Among the guidelines city staff has recommended for the safe-parking program are that preference be given to women and children, participants be cross-referenced with the statewide Megan’s Law database of registered sex offenders, and that participants sign written agreements about rule compliance. Such rules would include parking limited to between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.; registering with an SOS case manager; that vehicles be occupied solely by individuals or family members; no RVS; and that drugs, alcohol, outside-vehicle smoking and food preparation are prohibited, as is littering and loitering.

Harry Boone, meanwhile, told the council that he supported the safe-parking program but that it doesn’t go far enough.

“I’m rather appalled that this is such a meager and feeble effort,” Boone said, noting that there are dozens of parking spaces, but the program only allows for eight to 10 vehicles. “I just don’t think that’s very commendable. I would like to see it start at 20.”

Mayor Amy Harrington said it’s a matter of finding a middle ground where everyone has safe access to the lot and its surrounding facilities.

“No one group can take over a public space so that other people can’t use it,” said Harrington.

In the end, the Council voted 4-0-0, with Councilmember David Cook absent, to move forward with the safe-parking program.

In explaining her support for the program, Councilmember Hundley said that a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals held that “people have a right to rest.”

“And that means that if the police come across someone sleeping in public, sleeping in their car, they can’t move them,” said Hundley. “So having this program isn’t going to create any conditions that wouldn’t be there otherwise, it just puts parameters around it.”

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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