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Sonoma County supervisors approve $11 million in emergency spending on Santa Rosa homeless encampment

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Sonoma County supervisors on Monday approved a plan to address the county’s largest homeless encampment, agreeing to spend $11.63 million in an effort to chip away at the 200-plus-person trail camp that officials have for months labeled a public health emergency.

The action represented the most significant response by the Board of Supervisors to address a camp that’s overtaken the county-owned Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

The plan calls for at least two sanctioned encampments featuring indoor and outdoor shelter and services — at a cost of more than $2 million — and leveraging another $5.5 million to acquire existing housing.

The move came with some dissension among board members, who have postponed action for more than a month and now face another two- to six-month wait for even the quickest solutions offered Monday to take hold.

Several supervisors voiced the concern that the focus on the Joe Rodota Trail took away from efforts to address homelessness throughout the county.

“I’m going to be blunt. Spending $11 million for 200 people on the Joe Rodota Trail does not help the homeless community countywide,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, pointing to problems within her district, which includes Sonoma Valley.

Supervisor James Gore and outgoing board Chairman David Rabbitt, to a lesser extent, expressed similar reservations.

But Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the Joe Rodota Trail, pushed back.

“I recognize that addressing the Joe Rodota Trail is not going to solve homelessness countywide,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We also have to recognize that the Joe Rodota Trail is a public health emergency, period.”

The special meeting, the supervisors’ last of the year, came before a capacity crowd, and many people standing at the back and along the sides of the room held signs urging more aggressive action to help homeless people.

Referencing the long rollout period of even the short-term options floated Monday, Miles Sarvis, a leader with the newly formed homeless advocacy organization Squeaky Wheel Coalition, struck an upbeat tone.

“We need to do it soon,” Sarvis said to applause from the capacity crowd.

“It’s freezing outside. So let’s get on it. Let’s do it.”

Locations for the two sanctioned camps were not publicly identified or discussed Monday. They are expected to shelter up to 40 people apiece, and include safe parking options, according to county documents.

Despite the precise amount of the county allocation — $2.08 million — county officials would not confirm whether they have a short list of properties.

“It’s a good question,” Rabbitt said, referring to the lack of discussion Monday about specific sites.

“You can’t identify even the houses or where we’re talking about specifically because the debate then becomes about that.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, along with Gore and Hopkins, denied that the county had already picked sites, but Zane did offer that county-owned land at the airport has been considered by staff.

County staff last week also identified a plot of land near The Living Room, a Santa Rosa day shelter for homeless and at-risk women and children.

Potential sites will be weighed based on their accessibility and proximity to services and transportation, according to the county.

But site selection and designation of a third-party contractor to operate the camps and move in residents is expected to take at least another two months, and possibly up to six — meaning the coldest, wettest winter months will drag on with hundreds of people still living on the trail.

County staff will have discretion to select sites for the sanctioned camps, but Rabbitt said he’s confident the public will have an opportunity to comment on locations during the process of choosing an operator.

The multi-pronged approach advanced by the board took weeks to coalesce among the county’s housing, health and land-use agencies.

The county’s chief homelessness official, Geoffrey Ross, was elated to see the package approved.

“My team and I are excited; we have a clear path forward, and we are going to charge ahead,” said Ross, executive director of the Community Development Commission.

The county will spend up to $5 million to buy six large, multibedroom houses that could serve up to 60 people; put $750,000 into annual leases of six to seven units to serve another 20 people; and use $3.2 million to hire seven new staffers and fund contracts for drug treatment beds and medical support.

Come spring and summer, Ross expects unrelated work to yield more than 450 permanent supportive housing units, putting another dent in the county’s homeless population, estimated at 3,000, with about 2,000 people on the street at any given time.

The board’s action comes as the population of the camp on the Joe Rodota Trail continues to swell, reaching 210 people late last week with tents and other makeshift shelters pitched along a mile of county-owned trail near Stony Point Road. County parks officials began advising trail users against using the path more than a month ago.

While officials have been in talks for months about potential solutions to the Joe Rodota Trail camp, the numerous delays have resulted in mounting pressure on the Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council for a decisive plan.

Santa Rosa officials aren’t set to discuss their next step — expanded options for homeless people sleeping in their car — until late next month.

Even with Monday’s action, it could be months before officials have one or more alternative camps set up — a process that is likely to face public scrutiny.

Rabbitt said he took pride in the board’s action, but struck a cautious tone looking forward.

“I’m proud of the action, but at the end of the day, we’ll have to see how it all plays out,” he said.

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