Neighbors seek to close Sonoma homeless shelter

The lines of age are etched deep into Johnny Fassio’s face, but when the soft-spoken 71-year-old smiles, it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most beloved residents at Sonoma’s winter homeless shelter. If the shelter’s neighbors have their way, Fassio will be sleeping outside in the rain soon.

With temperatures dropping and rain predicted for the coming weeks, neighbors are threatening to sue to shut down the Sonoma Overnight Support shelter that has succored a handful of people at Sonoma Alliance Church on Watmaugh Road for the past three winters. Rick Deringer, the group’s leader, said he aims to shut the shelter down within weeks.

“These people are crazy. They are criminals. They’re not just people looking for a place to live. They are dangerous. A lot of them are child molesters and pedophiles,” Deringer said.

Fassio, who was born and raised in Sonoma and has lived in the city all his life, needs a walker to get around.

“It’s awful cold out there,” Fassio said in an interview Wednesday night. “I’m very grateful for this place (the shelter). If I couldn’t stay here, I would be sleeping in the street. Sleeping outside is not a good idea at my age,” the 71-year-old added.

“Mr. Deringer has been spreading information intentionally and in an inflammatory manner, and I have responded to people that this information is incorrect,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose 1st District Sonoma is located.

There have been five calls to police regarding the church address in the last year, according to Sonoma County Sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum.

“We have two disturbances, a suspicious person, a public intoxication and a ‘check the welfare,’” Crum said in an email Wednesday.

The area is classified as a low-crime zone in the Trulia Incident Report available online from the real estate data website Trulia.

Gorin said, “We should be forever thankful for the Sonoma Overnight Support board and Executive Director Kathy King and especially Pastor Rob Goerzen for opening up the church. If we did not have the shelter, there would be six to 10 people camping out in the rain and the cold by the creek.”

The shelter at Sonoma Alliance Church is run by Sonoma Overnight Support, the city’s 11-year-old homeless agency. It accommodates between five and 11 people a night, with a trained staffer awake on duty at all times when the homeless are there.

There are two homeless shelters in Sonoma, both of which are operated by Sonoma Overnight Support. The Haven, located near the police department on First Street West, is open year-round. The church shelter is open December through March and accommodates mostly overflow when there isn’t enough space at the Haven.

The winter shelter is funded under a contract with the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. The city’s only other shelter, the Haven, is funded by the city and private foundations. Sonoma Overnight Support has a $500,000 annual budget.

The handful of people who sleep on the floor or on cots at the church report to the Haven at 6 p.m. The Haven supplies them with a hot meal, and then they are taken to the shelter by Vern’s Taxi around 7:30 p.m. The taxi company returns around 8 a.m. to take them back to the Haven.

“The neighbors are furious and are joining me in litigation and an injunction to stop this shelter,” Deringer said in an interview Wednesday. “Every house that is surrounding the church property will be part of the litigation and others who are a block away will join us as well. They are fuming.”

Deringer said he has hired an attorney at Foreman & Brasso in San Francisco and is suing the church for “tens of millions of dollars.” He said other neighbors are joining the suit. A message left with Ron Foreman, a principal of the firm, was not returned.

Deringer said, “The church doesn’t have the right to host a homeless shelter. It should have gotten a permit, which it never got. The county knew there is not a zoning clearance on file, there is not a permit on file.”

The executive director of an oversight agency noted that King is fixing the zoning technicality.

“The fact that the church hasn’t done that (gotten a permit) but has been operating for three years is something that can be corrected,” said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

Van Vliet is in charge of homeless services and programming for the county. The SOS has a contract with the commission to provide shelter services in Sonoma. The shelter isn’t a county shelter.

“The church is zoned for agriculture and residence,” said King. “We’ve filed for a permit that would change our zoning to ‘religious purposes.’”

In an open letter to the church’s pastor, Rev. Rob Goerzen, and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, neighbors Jim and Marilyn Hybiske said, “Mixing in people who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol is NOT appropriate.

“Addicts, especially drug addicts are unpredictable, desperate to obtain drugs and sometimes violent. … breaking into people’s homes, stealing anything that is of value, and sadly, sometimes causing serious harm to homeowners who might encounter them,” the letter continues.

“Sheltering these types of individuals in a residential neighborhood, with homes and families within walking distance, creates major problems for residents and homeowners,” the Hybiskes said.

Neither Deringer nor the Hybiskes have witnessed any specific incidents of violence or crime in the neighborhood.

However, the Hybiskes said in their letter, “Since the shelter opened, we have noticed an increase of single persons walking on Broadway & Watmaugh, which is very unusual for this area.”

Regarding concerns about alcohol and drug addiction, when told that there have been only five calls to the church address in the last year, Van Vliet said, “That’s typical of what we see. Shelter operators including SOS have standards of behavior and they have strong relationships with law enforcement.

“Our experience with people who live on the streets is that they do not engage in criminal behavior when they have access to a shelter bed. They are grateful to be sheltered. People on the street are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators,” Van Vliet said.

During an interview Wednesday at the Haven, “People in Sonoma don’t like homeless people. Sometimes they set their dogs on you,” Fassio said.

Van Vliet added, “This (drug addiction at shelters) is a stereotype. Not all the people who access shelters are using alcohol or drugs.”

In a Dec. 12 meeting with Deringer, Gorin, Van Vliet, King, an elder of the church and seven neighbors, the attendees discussed the situation. The neighbors said the shelter’s occupants should be drug-tested, searched and background checks run for sex offender status.

“It is federal and state law that we cannot exclude people just because they are using drugs. Kathy King could not access federal or state funds if she insisted that occupants be drug-tested before they slept there,” Van Vliet said.

”It is behavior-based. We can exclude people for unsafe behavior,” Van Vliet said. “If they create some dangerous situation, of course law enforcement will be called.”

During his interview, Fassio said, “The people here treat you good and fair. You have to obey their rules and that’s that.”

Deringer, a developer who said he owns a building on Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, complained at length in the interview that “the county is anti-growth,” and has refused to allow him to build affordable housing on his industrial properties.

The developer has offered to purchase the church from the pastor on two separate occasions. Deringer made the offers about three months ago, Goerzen said.

“He called me at church and I called him back. I think I also saw him over the fence once,” Goerzen said in an email.

“He just inquired. I told him that I appreciated it, but that our church was paid for and we wouldn’t be interested. I did say that I would mention his overture to our church board of directors as a formality. They voted it down,” Goerzen said.

“He wanted the entire lot and church building. He stated that he would be willing to serve as our landlord and rent the church back to us. That made no sense as we own the church and land with no rent payments or landlord now,” Goerzen said.

Deringer said, “All the neighbors have been fighting the church for all the things they have been doing for years, but the church ignores them.” Deringer said the pastor holds rock concerts on weekends during the summer and he, Deringer, has reported the noise to police many times.

Deringer said the noise sometimes goes “to seven or eight o’clock at night.”

Because of these and other issues, the developer said, “We have reached the point where we have decided to sue the church and put the church out of business because that is the only way we can get them to listen to us.”

If Deringer and his allies succeed, it will leave the homeless people who depend on the church for survival during the winter with nowhere to go but the street, King said.

Fassio said, “It’s (the shelter) a good place to be on a cold, rainy night. It’s nice to have a bed at the church. It’s muddy out in the street, I can’t put my sleeping bag down.”

Elena Alioto, a case manager for SOS, said of Fassio, “I know he seems quiet, but he has a fighting spirit. I’ve seen him with his walker on the road, walking from Boyes Hot Springs all the way to the Haven.” The Haven is downtown, opposite the police department and the Council Chambers.

Fassio said of the winter shelter, “It’s a place I can call home. It’s like going home … when you have a home.”

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