Sonoma City Council authorizes emergency warming center
The Sonoma City Council has authorized the creation of a warming center for homeless people during extreme weather events.
Council members voted 4-1 for the shelter to be located inside the Haven, a city-owned manufactured home at 151 W. First St., and to terminate the city’s agreement with the nonprofit Sonoma Overnight Support to operate the facility.
Leaders of Sonoma Overnight Support said the city is acting too soon to remove the organization from the property without guaranteeing showers and laundry services are replaced somewhere else in Sonoma Valley, creating a potential pitfall for the Valley’s unhoused residents.
“SOS support(s) a warming center but we are concerned about (the) suitability of the Haven and we are disappointed that effective January 31, 2024 the City is terminating SOS’s operations,” Kathy King, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support, told the Index-Tribune.
The city has had a contract with Sonoma Overnight Support to management for an emergency shelter program to homeless residents at the Haven since 2005.
The authorization of a warming center will allow the city to be proactive in providing shelter amid potentially hazardous weather.
The warming center will be funded by the city with $30,000 from its redevelopment fund and $3,000 from its general fund for a third-party to operate on the site
In addition, the council approved $25,000 from its general fund to replace the facility’s HVAC system and update the site according to the American with Disabilities Act, among other repairs.
Last winter, when overnight lows in Sonoma Valley plunged below freezing, the city of Sonoma was forced to open an emergency warming center at the Sonoma Veterans Hall. The total cost to operate the emergency shelter was $17,171 over eight nights in December.
Under the new policy approved by the City Council, a warming center would open under the same conditions as the county: Three consecutive nights of below 32 degrees as forecast by the National Weather Service or hazardous conditions, such as a flash-flood warning or snowfall, in addition to a cold weather public health order by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, unanticipated or planned power outages, or daytime temperatures below 40 degrees.
While such conditions are rare for Sonoma, the city needs a “short-term solution to a temporary problem,” Lisa Janson, a senior management analyst for the city, said Nov. 15 in a presentation to the City Council.
The decision to remove Sonoma Overnight Support as the operator of the Haven comes on the condition that Homeless Action Sonoma, another nonprofit homelessness service organization, will provide shower and laundry services by Jan. 31, 2024.
Sonoma Overnight Support representatives are skeptical Homeless Action Sonoma can meet the deadline.
“With all due respect to HAS, they have missed multiple timelines,” said Judith Walsh, secretary of Sonoma Overnight Support, in regard to services at Homeless Action Sonoma’s tiny home village.
“Our primary concern is to preserve the showers and laundry at the Haven until HAS really has formally got everything there and has full approval and is fully operational to serve as many clients as we do now.”
Walsh said Sonoma Overnight Support provides 10 to 14 showers per day at the Haven while laundry services are less frequent. Without these services, homeless individuals may not have their basic needs, council member Jack Ding said, the lone no vote on the item.
“We need to protect SOS and protect our community,” Ding said.
But City Council member Ron Wellander questioned Sonoma Overnight Support’s use of the Haven for violating the original 2005 agreement to operate the site as an emergency shelter, instead using the site for shower and laundry services.
Sonoma City Manager David Guhin said the new contract for the Haven would reprise the original terms of that agreement.
“The agreement that the city has with SOS from 2005 is for, specifically, the emergency shelter program, and that is what the funding is for,” Guhin said. “Currently, it is not being run that way.”
Guhin said the use of the Haven must be part of a regional response to homelessness developed earlier this year by the city of Sonoma and homelessness consultant Andrew Hening to use county homelessness services.
While Sonoma Overnight Support may still apply for the $30,000 in funding from the city to be the third-party operator of the site during weather emergencies, Guhin said the homelessness services provider will need to act within the broader strategy to fight homelessness.
“Don’t disregard our experience. We want to carry out our mission on feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless,” King said. “And I think that terminating our agreement with the city is short-sighted.”