Sonoma grapples with location of homeless services

A vocal, diverse and engaged Sonoma community assembled in the spacious Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building for a Special City Council Meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11. The “Community Meeting on Public Safety, Parks and Facilities, and Homelessness Services and Programs” was occasioned by the recent arrest of a homeless man on charges of attempted sexual assault and exposure on the nearby Sonoma Bike Path, just outside of the Field of Dreams.

The meeting was only announced by the city on Friday; in attendance were an estimated 250-300 people.

Among the officials in attendance were the Sonoma City Council, Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez, Planning Director David Storer, City Manager Cathy Capriola, the county’s Interim Director of the Department of Health Services Barbie Robinson, and others.

There was an immediate and very real reason for the meeting in the first place: A homeless man was arrested Feb. 1, following a report of a Jan. 30 incident on the bike path near the Field of Dreams in which he had allegedly grabbed a teenaged girl standing on her bike from behind, and exposing himself.

The incident prompted Mayor Logan Harvey to call the meeting, “if for no other reason than to hear from people.”

And hear from people he did, getting an earful from the hall as about 30 speakers rose to alternately scold or sympathize with the city and the homeless population.

“You guys made the policy,” accused one resident during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It was a bad policy to start, and you guys made it worse.”

Harvey said he welcomed such community engagement. “I think it was important to hear from parents about the valid and real concerns they have at Field of Dreams,” he told the Index-Tribune the following day. “As a council we know our first priority is to keep our citizens and our children safe.”

The suspect in the Bike Path assault, 29-year-old Ruben Reyes-Gallardo, is still incarcerated while waiting the results of a court-ordered psychological evaluation.

Upon review by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, the original felony charge of “assault with intent to commit rape” was reduced to four misdemeanors from the incident, and two more from earlier violations, both drug-related.

His latest court appearance was Feb. 13.

The arrest elicited strong response from parents of the several youth ball clubs who practice and play at the Field of Dreams-area softball and baseball diamonds, including Sonoma Valley Girls Softball Association, Sonoma Soccer, Sonoma Valley Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, among others.

City Manager Capriola began the meeting with an overview of the city’s partnership with Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), the nonprofit which provides the homeless services in Sonoma - from a 2004 permit for an emergency shelter for battered women to the creation of the four-bedroom modular home at 151 First St. W., known as the Haven. Recently, the services provided have increased to include morning and noon meals, showers and overnight “respite beds,” as SOS Executive Director Kathy King described it.

In winter, SOS also offers overnight shelter at the Sonoma Alliance Church on Watmaugh Road; participants of the “winter shelter” are shuttled from the Haven to the church in the evening and shuttled back the following morning.

But when a 10-vehicle overnight parking permit was approved by the City Council last fall, some said the population of homeless spiked in the area of the Haven. King says the uptick in clients predates the parking program; she estimates the Haven has served between 60 and 70 percent more clients this year than last.

The Haven shares its parking lot with the Sonoma Police Department and the Holman Dog Park, as well as Fazio Park ballfield and the playing fields at Field of Dreams. The recent approval of the overnight homeless parking program - as well as the overall location of the Haven’s homeless services - near the Field of Dreams has been under the spotlight in the wake of Gallardo’s arrest.

Richard Goertzen, administrative president for the Field of Dreams, told the council that after 10 years with the Field of Dreams nonprofit, he was stepping down – in part, because of the conditions at the field as a result of the rising homeless population. Goertzen applauded SOS director Kathy King, but said, “We’re not her adversary, but believe the Haven was the wrong location from the beginning.”

Rev. Curran Reichert, pastor of Sonoma’s First Congregational Church and president of the SOS board of directors, quoted 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky in defense of SOS: “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its (most vulnerable).”

The quote was again alluded to later in the meeting when a parent passionately observed that, “Our most vulnerable population are our children.”

That parent and others spoke of the distressing atmosphere of the playing fields in recent weeks when, he said, children were afraid to use the public bathrooms, kids were jeered by homeless, and clouds of smoke and open consumption of alcohol was observed.

“If you continue this bad practice (of homeless parking), it can and will get worse,” he said.

As the meeting ended, city officials offered a few immediate steps that were already underway: introducing parking regulations at the lot; having a more visible police presence.

Another suggestion of revising the city’s status of the Field of Dreams as a “public park” – which allows for consumption of alcoholic beverages from 11 am to 6 p.m. – to something more restrictive and family-oriented would take action by the City Council.

“I’d like to get to the place where those fields are for kids, like they were when I was a kid,” said Harvey. “Every parent in Sonoma has memories of that field.”

Harvey cautioned, however, that while some steps were relatively simple to take, not all problems could be solved so quickly.

“Longer term, we’d need support from the community, parents, council and the SOS board to begin the process of looking for a new location (for the Haven),” he said. “Its purpose has changed. It’s no longer just an emergency shelter, and we need to find a long-term location for homeless services,” including overnight parking.

On March 2, city staff will present the City Council with potential next steps as to the future of homeless services in the city.

Though the three-hour duration of the meeting and its sometimes frank exchange of ideas was described by some as “divisive,” Harvey saw it differently.

“I didn’t hear divisiveness, I heard a unique community ready to work together to solve the problem,” said Harvey.

On Feb. 12, the day after the meeting, the city parking lot shared by the Field of Dreams and the Haven was almost empty – as if those who had parked there knew it was time to move on.

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