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. www.trulia.com/real_estate/Sonoma-California/crime/.
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.