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Sonoma homeless shelter violating its use permit, say city officials

With the spotlight on operations at the Haven homeless shelter in the wake of a Feb. 1 arrest of a homeless man for assaulting a girl on the nearby bike path, city officials Wednesday questioned the shelter’s compliance with its use permit to serve locals in need.

The Sonoma City Council at its Feb. 19 meeting voted 4-0, with Councilmember Rachel Hundley absent, to increase private security around the shelter, form a council subcommittee to engage local stakeholders and directed staff to target possible new locations from which the shelter could operate.

But council members said they were caught off guard this week when they learned that the Haven’s current use permit restricts its operations to the hours of 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. – in order to serve overnight clients – all the while SOS volunteers have been also providing day services to the needy. Among those day services have been meals, showers, laundry, haircuts, case management and other forms of respite, according to SOS officials who say the day services began around 2013.

Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti described herself as “disgusted” to learn that the shelter’s services haven’t complied with what’s allowed under its permit.

“I think it’s unconscionable that it’s brought up right now… how does this happen?” asked Agrimonti.

“It’s unconscionable that we did these things, to work with them, begging the county for money, and we were ignoring the real baseline of what we were supposed to be doing.”

According to Sonoma Planning Director David Storer, the Haven’s 2005 use permit limits its hours to between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. and requires it to conform to certain conditions such as preventing loitering, having screening procedures and limiting stays to four weeks.

Local nonprofit Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS) has run the 4-bedroom Haven since 2005 at 151 First St. W., a location which shares a parking lot with the Sonoma Police Station and the Field of Dreams public park and its surrounding sports fields. But an increase in homeless clients and other transients in the vicinity has led to complaints from youth sports leagues, Field of Dreams officials and users of the adjacent bike path who say the location of the shelter is a poor fit near the well-trodden recreation area.

“This is not a choice between compassion and common-sense location, but this is a bad location,” said Richard Goertzen, a soccer coach and outgoing president of the Field of Dreams board of directors, adding that homeless “loiter” near the park and have vandalized its facilities. “I would like to see the Haven continue their mission, but certainly not in the parking lot next to where 5-, 6-, 9-year-old girls are playing, and little boys as well.”

The Sonoma Police Department says that since 2017 it has responded to about 20 homeless-related calls per year at the Field of Dreams. The Feb. 1 arrest of former SOS client Ruben Reyes-Gallardo, 29, for misdemeanor sexual assault of a teenaged girl on the bike path is the first “horrible incident” in its 13 years of operation, said Kathy King, executive director of SOS.

“I will not apologize for what we are doing with limited resources,” King told the Council on Wednesday, adding that the city has been long aware of the ongoing day services. “This is no surprise (to the city) that we’re feeding people.”

Councilmember Amy Harrington said that just because the city supports the Haven’s mission to assist the needy is no reason to allow it to violate the conditions of its permit.

“We already have a process for land use,” said Harrington. “And it’s not: Do we like you or not?”

Harrington called for beginning the process of amending the use permit to allow for additional services immediately.

Resident Fred Allebach expressed concern over whether the question of permitting was being used as an end-around to close the Haven. “I’m a little shocked to see land-use regulations and health issues to come up for what looks to me as a proxy to possibly discontinuing (services) or moving people,” said Allebach. “I really hope this is not a proxy issue to run the homeless out.”

Dan Vrooman, whose late wife Cindy Vrooman had been a past president of SOS’s board of directors, spoke to how Cindy became a volunteer when “the mutterings, the anguish and the horrors of the homeless could no longer go unnoticed” by her.

Vrooman said he wanted to speak “on behalf of the love of my life.”

“Sustained dissent requires we develop the courage to treat each other graciously,” said Vrooman. “We surely have every right to share our sense of pride in the Field of Dreams.”

But, he continued, “the homeless need to establish a sense of pride” as well.

“Empower them to utilize that pride to self-regulate,” concluded Vrooman. “And the location of the Haven becomes a moot point.”

According to SOS officials, this past January the Haven provided the following as part of its day services: 2,069 meals; 245 showers; 662 hygiene products; 108 pieces of clothing; 73 socks or undergarments; 126 bus passes and 35 loads of laundry.

“We will continue the day services until they find a new place that we can operate,” King told the Index-Tribune following the meeting.

City staff is expected to return March 2 with an update on the process for amending the Haven’s use permit; and to report back in 90 days with a roadmap on finding a new location for the shelter.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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