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Valley Forum: Haven committed to helping homeless, hungry

Kathy King, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support, which runs the Haven homeless shelter, wrote the following op-ed in response to the recent op-ed by Fred Fegan and Richard Goertzen (“Homeless a Nightmare for Field of Dreams,” Oct. 25), which raised concerns about the increasing number of homeless residents frequenting the parking lot shared by youth sports fields and the Haven homeless shelter.

Sonoma Overnight Support is a nonprofit organization operating the Haven on property owned by the City of Sonoma. With limited funding from the City and the generosity of foundations, community groups, businesses and individuals, the Haven feeds the hungry and provides support services to Sonoma and Sonoma Valley residents who no longer have permanent housing. Despite what was written in the aforementioned op-ed, it has never been exclusively for women and children.

I am all-too familiar with the increased number of people who are coming to the Haven for food, case management and use of our shower and laundry facilities. In September we served 91 people. Thirty-six of these clients live in their cars. Some of them park in the lot we share with the Field of Dreams, the Sonoma Dog Park and the police station.

When the Haven was established 12 years ago, the SOS founders – Adele Harrison, Elizabeth Kemp and Sy Lenz – could not have imagined that there would be so many people coming to SOS for help. They could not have imagined that the City of Sonoma and Sonoma County would declare that we now have a homeless crisis in our community.

They could not have foreseen that people would be living in their cars on our streets, half of whom are over 50 years of age, just trying to hold on to the only safety they have left.

They could not have predicted that raging fires two years ago would devastate communities making affordable housing almost impossible.

We at SOS are committed to helping those who are homeless and hungry. In the past year we have seen a 40 percent increase in clients coming to the Haven. Some are no longer able to pay the rising cost of rents. Some need food because their minimum wage jobs don’t cover their basic needs.

Eighty-five percent of the people we serve were born and raised in Sonoma. Many have relatives in Sonoma who, for a myriad of reasons, are unable to take them into their homes.

I believe we have been good neighbors to the Field of Dreams. It is our staff who make sure the parking lot is clean every morning. We pay for a Porta Potty in our backyard because the Field of Dreams bathrooms are locked except when there are scheduled activities on the field. We purchased and pay for additional garbage bins so trash is not spilling onto the parking lot and field.

We are working with the City of Sonoma and the Sonoma Police to ensure that Sonomans who want access to the Field of Dreams or the dog park feel safe using the parking lot.

Our new Safe Parking rules and guidelines for overnight parking will help.

Ten cars will be allowed in the parking lot at night, but must be moved elsewhere by 1 p.m. when Haven services close for the day. The car owners will be vetted, issued parking permits, and monitored by SOS staff. No RVs will be allowed.

To receive a parking permit, each car owner must sign up for SOS services so we can help them secure more permanent housing through Interfaith Shelter Network services and/or room rental through Share/Sonoma.

The latest fire disaster to threaten our community is an unfortunate reminder that we do not know what the future holds. Economic disparity continues to force more people into poverty and in the most tragic of situations, into homelessness.

Will we have the same determination and compassion as shown by the SOS founders to stand up and care for those most in need?

I am confident that the community will continue to say, “yes.”

As Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Kathy King is the executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support.

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