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Sonoma City Council considers moving safe parking away from Field of Dreams

On any given night, the parking slots next to the Haven on First Street West are filled with 10 cars. It’s the last stop for the 14 homeless individuals who currently rely on the safe parking program that allows registered vehicles to spend up to six months in the lot, between the approved hours of 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Participants are also allowed to use the shelter’s services, such as showers, meals and laundry, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. But from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., the cars must find somewhere else to be, to make room for the the players and parents who use the Field of Dreams for youth sports.

“Some evenings there may be events at the Field of Dreams near the premises, and (safe parking) participants will need to arrive at a later time,” reads the agreement between the City and nonprofit Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), which has hosted safe parking on the site since 2019. “In that case, City shall notify SOS, who in turn shall notify the participants to arrive at a later time.”

That agreement was up for review at last week’s Sonoma City Council meeting, as SOS sought another six-month extension to the two-year-old program. With written letters and public comment, more than a dozen parents expressed their displeasure that the program is located so close to City’s athletic fields.

“I have had children playing on those fields for seven years and I have personally witnessed what a detrimental effect the occupancy of that parking lot by those seeking help has had on the fields, the community, the children,” wrote Noelia De Torres. “The bottom line is that the people who are being served by SOS are making our children feel UNSAFE!”

The council tried to navigate the needs of homeless advocates like Kathy King, director of SOS, who said there is nowhere else for unhoused individuals to go without displacing them from Sonoma, and the parents who worry about the safety of their children at the Field of Dreams.

Based on statistics from the Sonoma Police Department, the clients at SOS have not been at the heart of the problem. Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez said there were 33 times police responded to incidents at the Field of Dreams between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 — only one resulted in a police report. King said none of the incidents involved SOS clients.

Vice Mayor Kelso Barnett echoed parents’ concerns that the Haven’s services attracts individuals who make parents and youth feel unsafe. One person who spoke at the council meeting cited vulgar language heard from the parking lot while community members led a memorial for softball coach and firefighter Eric Padgett. In a letter to the city council, Nick Bell, president of the Sonoma Valley United Soccer Association, referenced an incident earlier this year where a player and parent were “attacked” in the parking lot.

“This is common sense,” Barnett said. “It's an incompatible land use. I don't want to pull the rug from the Haven or from safe parking, but we need to come together as a community to work with the county and create a solution for these issues.”

SOS’s safe parking was supposed to be a stop gap for homelessness in Sonoma Valley, Barnett said. But its place at the parking lot next to the Field of Dreams has “gone on too long.”

Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti said compatibility might be of concern but removing people from the safe parking area without providing another place for them to go is illegal.

“Everybody who speaks on this issue knows that if we remove people... we can’t do it,” Agrimonti said. “The Ninth Circuit Court said if you don’t have anywhere else to for (homeless individuals) to live, they can stay there.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2018 that cities could not prohibit homeless people from camping in public places unless they had adequate shelter available.

With a 4-0 decision — Councilmember Sandra Lowe abstained — the council voted to renew the permit for three months instead of the six months that was requested. Meanwhile, city staff has been directed to look for a more suitable location for the Haven, a small modular building owned by the City, and its safe parking services. Additional options are expected to be considered by the council before SOS’s permit expires in April.

King said she’s already tried alternative sites.

“We begged for property,” King said, adding that SOS looked at eight locations earlier this year, but were either outright denied or found that the wrap-around services, like showers and laundry, required for such a shelter were untenable with the site.

“We couldn't get any property from the County and the City said they had no property,” King said. “This time, with the new City Council, they said they would find somebody to find us a place. I’m like, ‘Okay, if you find us a place, we'll go.’ But there is no place.”

King said the people who live in their cars were the most likely to find stable housing, as they are often “newly homeless,” set back temporarily by the loss of a job or one of life’s unexpected perils. The people who live in safe parking don’t want to move into a shelter facility like COTS in Petaluma, because they either have partners or pets, neither of which is allowed in most homeless shelters.

The City’s $60,000 safe parking program isn’t just next to the Field of Dreams, it’s also located behind the police station. And there’s benefits to having the police shadow the area, King said, because if everyone is in one spot, it is easier to manage. The agreement with the City requires SOS to staff a security guard, who can work with police if incidents do arise.

Rodriguez agreed during the City Council meeting, saying that if the safe parking permit was not extended, then residents living in their cars could park anywhere in the City for 72 hours before police can take any action.

“If people don’t have a place to go, they’re going to be parking in front of people’s homes. and there’s no control when you park in a public street,” Rodriguez said. “Having them in a location where we can monitor and impose a little bit of rules, I think, goes a long way... I think it helps us in law enforcement.“

For others, the Field of Dreams takes on a sentimental value. Barnett remembers when it was being built and Oakland Athletic’s pitcher Dave Steward came out of a vineyard to celebrate the opening of the park.

“It was a community effort to build those fields and those fields are for our kids,” Barnett said. “There can be a common sense win-win solution here where we can address our challenges of the homeless, but also preserve those fields in the parking lot for the kids and parents of the Valley.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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