City puts homeless parking program in drive

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The Sonoma Overnight Support “safe parking” program proposal for the car-bound homeless got the green light from the City Council on Monday night, paving the way for the designation of five parking spaces outside the Haven shelter at 151 First St. W. to provide a place for the vehicular-housed to sleep at night.

The program was approved in a 4-1 Council vote and will take place on a four-month trial basis, with a tentative start date of Monday, Dec. 19.

Sonoma Overnight Support director Kathy King displayed her enthusiasm following the Nov. 21 meeting in an email to supporters: “At last – hallelujah!”

King spoke at the meeting in an effort to reassure the Council and neighborhood residents of the viability of the program and that Haven staff will tightly adhere to SOS’s operational agreement with the City. “We want to make sure the neighbors feel safe while the homeless are sleeping in their cars,” said King.

The safe-parking program was first proposed by SOS officials last year when King pitched it to the Council as a way to serve the several homeless individuals and families in Sonoma who live in vehicles, the majority of whom are women, says King. The five designated parking spaces would be available to the vehicular-bound daily from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Haven staff would monitor program participants to ensure they are drug and alcohol free and have valid drivers licenses, car insurance and vehicle registration. SOS would also provide sanitation facilities.

Some neighbors, however, have expressed concern that such a program would only attract more homeless to a residential neighborhood, and was inappropriate for a parking lot that, during the day, is shared by the visitors to the police department, the Community Meeting Room, the Field of Dreams and youth baseball fields.

However, no neighborhood residents at the Nov. 21 meeting spoke in opposition of the program. The lone “nay” among the councilmembers was David Cook, who said he remains skeptical as to whether the Haven was the proper location for a program that could have a greater need than the five spaces provides.

“I’m worried about cars six, seven and eight,” said Cook. “I really believe this is not the right spot.”

Cook called for a more ambitious strategy to alleviate local homelessness. “Fix a problem, don’t do the Band-Aid,” he said. “In the next four years I want to try and fix the homeless problem.”

Though Councilmember Gary Edwards had previously opposed the proposal for similar reasons to Cook, he said that since the city seemed to be moving forward with the pilot program, he wanted to lend it his support. However, said Edwards, “I want to see SOS get back to the core of (its mission) – as an emergency shelter.”

Still, the general mood was enthusiastic in support of giving the program a test run.

Peadar Dalton, a representative of the Sonoma Valley Ministerial Association, applauded the program and predicted the launch of the SOS program would elicit interest in similar programs that could be run by faith communities. Multiple safe-parking programs are currently operated in the county by Catholic Charities, which has offered to play an advisory role in the SOS program.

Former Sonoma City Councilmember Larry Barnett reminded everyone that the program was merely a test and reiterated his promise to donate $2,000 to SOS to help implement the program. Following the meeting, Barnett said, “(It) feels good to finally be doing something more to add to our efforts to support the homeless population.”

Sonoma resident Fred Allebach spoke at the meeting in an attempt to quell any fears of bad behavior by the car-bound with his observations of a typical Saturday night on the Plaza.

“In comparing homeless people with the fine, upstanding citizens on the Plaza … people are drunk, yelling out of their cars,” said Allebach. “You want to put all these (rules) on the (homeless) people, but the core of our town isn’t that great of an example.”

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