SOS pulls the brakes on Sonoma’s Safe Parking program
The meter may be up for Sonoma’s Safe Parking program after the CEO of Sonoma Overnight Support, Kathy King, announced the homeless service initiative would cease due to the high cost to secure the site.
“Unfortunately, the costs per person were becoming prohibitive. As of June 3, we will no longer contract with the security company to surveil the parking lot,” read an SOS press release on Tuesday. “Thereafter, SOS will not have jurisdiction over who parks in the parking lot.”
SOS made a conditional agreement with the city of Sonoma in 2019 to pay for a security guard to monitor the program in exchange for use of the Sonoma Police Department parking lot. The nonprofit pays guards $30 per hour for 10-hour nightly shifts, for a total cost of $111,600 per year, King said.
The Safe Parking program provides a secure and lawful place for up to 10 cars to park overnight, providing a lifeline for unsheltered people. Facing rising food insecurity in the Valley, while the number of people reliant on Safe Parking dwindled, King said it became a question of how to best use the nonprofits limited funding.
“The question was, ‘Is that worth the amount of resources going to two or three people?’” King said.
From 2007 to 2019, the nonprofit provided overnight homeless services at the Haven, a city-owned building in the First Street West lot. But with the end of the Safe Parking offering, its name is out of sync with its offerings.
“I would say it's more like outreach. SOS is outreach – it's not overnight for sure. We got nobody overnight,” King said.
After community concerns about the program’s proximity to the youth sports offerings on the Field of Dreams, the city council considered moving the program.
“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,” Noelia DeTorres wrote to the council in 2021. “The bottom line is that the people who are being served by SOS are making our children feel UNSAFE!”
King said the board of directors has considered ending the program for the past year, particularly during winter when numerous users of the Safe Parking left the lot, which today is used by a “handful” of people, King said.
“I would say pivot is a good word,” King said. “We're just focusing on where the needs are the most and where we can help the most people.”
Since 2019, the number of meals served by SOS has more than tripled. The need has increased so much that SOS will soon expand its services to a new building at 17400 Sonoma Highway, moving out of the Grange.
“It was decided that our energy and focus and, more importantly, our limited resources are much better spent where we can have the most impact on the many people we serve by providing nutritious, hot meals to those in need of food,” King said.
Mayor Sandra Lowe said the council would review how an end to the Safe Parking program would affect the city’s response to homelessness, but did not offer immediate next steps.
“We will definitely look at the impact of this — it’s hard say without an analysis,” Lowe said in an email to the Index-Tribune.
New City Manager David Guhin said the program will be evaluated as part of an overall effort to better serve unsheltered residents as the city implements its newly passed three-year plan to end homelessness in Sonoma Valley.
“It's a good time to look at the whole thing and take a step back and identify where the resources are best needed,” Guhin said. “You heard from the council that there's a strong interest in supporting our local providers in providing various services from shelter and food.”
King said SOS will continue to operate its various wrap-around services, including free showers, laundry and other programs through social workers at the Haven, a four-bedroom modular home that operates as a resource center for SOS.
The next step for residents who rely on Safe Parking is less certain, who are being notified this week about the end of the program. About two dozen unhoused residents will find shelter at Homeless Action Sonoma’s tiny home village in Boyes Hot Springs. Others can find housing at the shelter at Los Guilicos.
But Safe Parking, which is popular with newly homeless individuals while they look for more permanent housing, will no longer be offered after next week.
“I really fought for this beginning in 2017,” King said. “We started it and then we stopped and then we started up in 2019. And, it was a stepping stone into other places.”
Contact Chase Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.
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