Homeless shelter to stay until… ?
"Betrayed." "Double-cross." "Bait and switch." "Liars".
Those are just a few of the choice words Oakmonters and others had prior to and during the July 7 Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss the future of a nearby 60-unit homeless shelter.
At the beginning of the year, Los Guilicos Village (LGV) was promoted as a temporary emergency solution to house some of the homeless who had to be moved off a huge encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.
The goal was to then move willing LGV residents to other transitional housing locations as the county grappled with acquiring permanent housing situations. Housing is seen as an important step to help the homeless, many of whom are dealing with addiction and mental health issues, get back on their feet and reenter society.
At a January meeting in front of about 500 people in Oakmont's Berger Center, county officials promised that LGV, made up of tiny pallet homes and located off of Pythian Road across from Oakmont, would be temporary. The goal was to have LGV removed by April 30, but perhaps extended if needed.
Just prior to the July 7 board meeting, local media reported that county staff was considering asking the Board of Supervisors to make LGV permanent, which set off a firestorm of comments from Oakmonters already wary about the possibility of an extension of any kind.
In addition, rumors were swirling that some of the current high level of services that have helped LGV operate smoothly, including 24/7 security and transportation for residents as needed, would be removed because they are too expensive.
That was the backdrop for the July 7 meeting, where the board also discussed a number of homeless issues, including looking for additional new shelters in Sonoma County, and addressing short- and medium-term strategies to address homelessness.
Literally hundreds of emails, voice mails, and other correspondence flooded into the board of supervisors, the vast majority opposing any permanent LGV or any continuance without an end date.
Commenters reiterated their ongoing concerns about the remoteness of the site from needed services, security issues, and the increased risk of fire. LGV sits in the shadow of Hood Mountain Regional Park and across the highway from Trione-Annadel State Park, both sites of blazes during the catastrophic 2017 wildfires.
During the meeting, county staff did not make any specific recommendation as to the future of LGV, such as the possibility of making it permanent, opting to let the supervisors hash it out.
First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, in who's district LGV is located, and who lives in Oakmont herself, tried to convince her fellow board members to commit to a closing date for the shelter. Gorin was opposed to the shelter location from the beginning, and still fuming at the hurried way it was originally approved, without any community outreach.
"Let's find a date, let's make it October, and let's look for a space in Sonoma or some nearby area," said Gorin.
Gorin is currently in the process of forming a committee with City of Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey to look for a shelter location in Sonoma Valley. "That's where the need is, that's where the people are, that's where the services are," said Gorin.
The four other supervisors were reluctant to set a date for closing, in part citing how COVID-19 has turned everything upside down with regard to county efforts to address homelessness.
"We apologize to the community for making a commitment that maybe we can't fulfill at this point, but the reason why is the pandemic," said Supervisor Shirley Zane. "The pandemic has changed everything. We basically have three times the amount of people to house." Zane was referring to moving people living on the street to housing units (such as at Sonoma State University) in an attempt to slow COVID-19 infections.
"To allay concerns of folks who think this is permanent, there's no intention of making it permanent on my part," said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. "I understand and appreciate the community's frustration. This was intended to be temporary, but circumstances have changed dramatically and we can't afford to lose a single bed."
Supervisor David Rabbitt echoed the three other supervisors' hesitation.
"We named two dates [for LGV closure] we couldn't keep, why should we name another?" Rabbitt said. "COVID did play a role in moving the dates. We'll try as quick as we can to get other things going, but to name a date? No, I'm not going to do that."
The board voted 4-1 to continue LGV operations, and at the current level, meaning the same level of security will continue, as will transportation for residents who need to go to jobs and appointments in Santa Rosa. Staffing levels of the operator, St. Vincent de Paul, will stay the same, as will the onsite medical care, mental health, addiction, and job training services. Fire sprinklers will be installed as well.
By most accounts, the program in place at LGV has been successful, helping homeless individuals tackle addiction, find employment, and get moved to permanent housing, all while having little impact on the Oakmont retirement community across Highway 12. There have been some fights between residents on site.
"There have been zero incidents in Oakmont," from LGV clients, said Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.
Tibbetts said the monthly $133,000 earmarked by the board of Supervisors is sufficient to continue the level of service being provided at LGV. Tibbetts had written a letter to the board of supervisors urging them not to chip away at the costs associated with the shelter.
"It's a challenge running this place," said Tibbetts. "You have 60 people that have had a hard past and a tough life. You have to have sufficient funding."
As of July 7, 90 individuals had been provided services at LGV since January, with 55 currently living there. Seventeen have found permanent housing, 19 have left the shelter voluntarily, 14 were asked to leave due to rule infractions, and three were placed in residential/psychiatric facilities.
"It's the way that this is operating that makes it OK," said Steve Spanier, president of the Oakmont Village Association's (OVA) board of directors. "But the combination of kicking the can down the road and breaking promises - there's been a breach of trust. What's said can't be trusted. There's confusion and no long-term coherent plan. People can accept a lot of interim stuff if there's an end goal in sight."
Spanier said the OVA is "definitely" looking into litigation, but he declined to elaborate.
"There's a whole host of possibilities," he said.
Editor & Publisher