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Addressing homelessness in Santa Rosa is a top priority of the City Council, supported by $4.9 million in funding in 2021/22, up from $1.5 million in 2015/16. Two interdepartmental teams – the Homeless Action Team (HAT) and the Homeless Encampment Assistance Program (HEAP) – coordinate the City’s response. Representatives from Police, Fire, Housing and Community Services, Transportation & Public Works, Water, City Manager’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, and the Communications & Intergovernmental Relations Department meet weekly and work together with community partners to provide outreach, emergency shelter, housing, and services to persons experiencing homelessness. The City follows a Housing First Strategy to address homelessness, providing individualized assistance to people experiencing homelessness toward the goal of obtaining housing. More information about homeless services provided by the City is available on the City’s website under Programs and Initiatives. The City also participates in Sonoma County’s Continuum of Care (CoC) program, a collaborative effort to ensure alignment with a broader regional strategy and leverage federal and state resources to end homelessness.
While there has been an increase in the visibility of homelessness, there has been a decrease in the number of people who are homeless in Sonoma County. The homeless count conducted as part of the 2020 Sonoma County Point-In-Time Census and Survey showed a 39-percent decrease in homelessness since 2011, from 4,539 individuals to 2,745 individuals. However, 62% of those individuals in 2020 were living in unsheltered and often visible conditions, such as in cars, on the street, and other public spaces not meant for human habitation. The remaining 38% were living in emergency shelters. Given the complex nature of homelessness and its many contributing factors, it is difficult to pinpoint as to why the issue has become more prominent in recent years. One factor certainly is Sonoma County’s housing market, which is one of the least affordable in the nation. In fact, 70% of those surveyed in the Point-In-Time Census reported affordable rent as the primary obstacle to obtaining permanent housing to end their homelessness. Another consideration to keep in mind is the fact that acceptance of homeless services and shelter is voluntary. While the City is required to offer services and shelter, no one can be forced to accept.
The City provides funding to support emergency shelters for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness, including the Samuel L. Jones Hall Homeless Shelter – Sonoma County’s largest emergency shelter. Additionally, programs are available to provide food, clothing, housing and other supportive services, and the City opened a Safe Parking Pilot Program in March 2022 for individuals who are living in their vehicles. If you are aware of someone in need of homeless services and shelter, please contact the Homeless Services Outreach Team (HOST) at 707-978-8329 or [email protected].
Encampments within the City are evaluated on a regular basis and prioritized for resolution relative to available resources and the severity of issues within each encampment (i.e., location/size, health/safety issues, fire risk, immediate hazards). Encampments which pose an immediate threat to health and safety are given the highest priority. For all other encampments, the City follows the protocols of the Homeless Encampment Assistance Program (HEAP) prior to resolving an encampment, including outreach in advance to provide those residing within the encampment with reasonable notice, an opportunity to be assessed for shelter and services, access to adequate shelter, storage of belongings, and a process to appeal a denial of any disability-related requests for reasonable accommodation.
Encampments on private property are referred to the City’s Code Enforcement division and require cooperation of the property owner to resolve. Santa Rosa Police Department (SRPD) will enforce trespassing on private property, however, the property owner must have a “no trespassing” letter on file with SRPD. Private property managers must post signs citing the City’s municipal code and provide a person to act as the designated agent to enforce the Trespass Ordinance on private property. While not required, Code Enforcement and SRPD will coordinate with the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) to offer services in advance of removing the encampment.
The Ninth Circuit Court decision in Martin v. Boise requires that shelter be available and offered before any enforcement against sleeping or camping in public spaces can be undertaken. Additionally, the terms of a Preliminary Injunction resulting from a federal lawsuit brought against the City and County of Sonoma requires that prior to arrest or citation for unlawful camping (including vehicles/RVs parked for more than 72 hours), individuals within the encampment must be given reasonable notice, an opportunity to be assessed for shelter and services, access to adequate shelter, storage of belongings, and a process to appeal a denial of any disability-related requests for reasonable accommodation.
If the RV/vehicle is occupied, then the City must comply with the terms of the Preliminary Injunction (outlined in question 6). Vehicles in the public right-of-way with expired registration or that are non-operable may be towed subject to staffing resources and the capacity of the City’s towing vendor. A recent survey estimates approximately 300 RVs/vehicles are currently occupied in Santa Rosa. In response, the City implemented a Safe Parking Pilot Program in March 2022 which provides up to 50 parking spaces for individuals living in their vehicles. While this does not meet the estimated need, it is a first step for the City in trying to address vehicle encampments, provide individuals a safe place to stabilize while seeking more permanent solutions, and to mitigate impacts to the broader community.
The City recognizes that efforts to resolve encampments in one area of the community have resulted in the relocation of individuals to other areas of the community – despite City actions to mitigate relocation through outreach, engagement, and the provision of services, shelter, and housing. The resources needed to address the scope of homelessness in the community are more than the City can currently provide. The City receives a high volume of homeless-related requests from business and commercial districts throughout Santa Rosa, as well as residential neighborhoods, community health clinics, and schools. Given competing requests, the City, through the Homeless Encampment Assistance Program (HEAP), must evaluate and prioritize encampments relative to available resources and the severity of issues within each encampment. The City currently only has resources to focus on one large encampment at a time while monitoring and managing other areas. This results in the growth of other encampments until they can be addressed.
Keep in mind that simply being homeless is not a crime and people experiencing homelessness have the same rights as everyone to be in public spaces. Some behaviors associated with homelessness may be unpleasant but are not illegal, while others may be illegal but difficult for police to enforce depending on the severity of the crime. Additionally, law enforcement response to homeless-related calls for service is not always the most effective or appropriate intervention, which is why the Santa Rosa Police Department, in collaboration with community partners, developed the inResponse Mental Health Support Team, a multi-disciplinary mobile crisis intervention service that is integrated into the City’s public safety system. More information about inResponse is available at srcity.org/inResponse. If you witness or know of Illegal activity occurring, it should be reported to the Santa Rosa Police Department’s 24/7 non-emergency line at 707-528-5222. For urgent matters call 911. Calls for service will be prioritized based on urgency and available resources.
The best and most impactful way to help someone who is experiencing homelessness is to connect them to the services and options for shelter that are available to them. The City’s non-profit partners provide food, clothing, shelter, housing, and other supportive services to meet the immediate needs of homeless community members, and are committed to helping to solve the critical, ongoing issue of homelessness in Santa Rosa.
Make a referral to HOST: If you are aware of someone in need of homeless services and shelter, please contact the Homeless Services Outreach Team (HOST) at 707-978-8329 or [email protected]. This street outreach team funded by the City is operated by Catholic Charities to help engage unsheltered community members into shelter and services.
Donate to a Service Provider: The City’s non-profit partners provide food, clothing, housing, and other supportive services to community members who are experiencing homelessness. If you wish to help, please consider donating to one of these organizations, a partial list is available on the City's Resources webpage.
Be a Part of the Solution: Homelessness is a critical issue in our community and many others across the Bay Area and California. Managing the immediate crisis at hand while working towards solutions to end homelessness will require a coordinated, regional response with collaboration from all sectors of the community. To learn more and get involved, visit the City’s website, attend a Santa Rosa City Council meeting, or contact us with your ideas to increase community participation at [email protected].