Sebastopol City Council approves new site for RV Park

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, December 7, 2021

homeless motor homes

Motorhomes along Morris Street will soon be moving to another address.

The Sebastopol City Council unanimously approved a new location for a temporary RV village at 845 Gravenstein Highway North during its special meeting Nov. 30.

The RV pilot program is intended to be run by Sonoma Applied Services (SAVS), projected to be able to access the property in mid-December and start moving RVs in by mid-January, according to Councilmember Diana Rich.

The city council declared a local homeless emergency and will consider approving for “actions related to SAVS RV Village Pilot Program” at its Dec. 7 meeting, per the most recent meeting agenda.

Directions given to staff included developing a plan to bring back at the Dec. 21 city council meeting to clear Morris Street and to change and enforce parking rules there, and throughout the city if needed, to keep future overnight parking issues from happening again.

Previously, council members considered using the city’s public works storage yard for the one-year pilot program to provide the homeless people living in vehicles on Morris Street more secure shelter, Mayor Una Glass said.

Then staff found that adapting the yard to take in RVs would cost an estimated $130,000 to $290,000, staggering above a recent offer made by Saint Vincent de Paul Sonoma County to cost the city far less.

Saint Vincent de Paul (SVDP) is a nonprofit extending housing, food and shelter services to the county’s unhoused populations. Glass said the organization is in the process of buying the Gravenstein Highway North property and has approached Rich offering to host the RV park for a year. The lease would cost SAVS $60,000.

The council’s vote authorized that if the city needed to help fund the project, the city would pull first from its affordable housing funds and staff would determine requirements with SVDP. As a last resort, the city may slip into its reserves and apply for grants to restore those funds, according to the motion.

Council members agreed the public works storage yard wasn’t a feasible option anymore, but arranging for the new location scrunches up the timeline, sending the council and staff into a sprint. SVDP expects to close escrow Dec. 6 and SAVS has until Dec. 8 to confirm a site and tentative operating agreement with the city.

If SAVS fails to do so, it will lose the $368,000 pledged by Sonoma County’s Continuum of Care (CoC). The city can’t get the RV park project up and running without that funding, Glass said.

The organization’s long-term plan is to develop the property into something like affordable apartments, she said.

SAVS sets expectations for RV village living

SAVS Board President Adrienne Lauby assured the public that the RV village now proposed for Gravenstein Highway North would not resemble Morris Street in its current status. Lauby and board member Patrick O’Loughlin dug into more details about their new tentative plans.

Lauby said that a managed program is a very different experience than how homeless individuals eke out a living by themselves. “People on their own are concerned about survival. Once there’s management and certain things are in place — oh, you know where you’re going to be able to use the bathroom, you know where your food’s coming from — you can start working on living … and your life goals,” she said.

Generally, the pilot program is intended to support up to 20 RVs and 20 to 40 residents who would have access to portable bathrooms and showers, basic electricity, potable water and a shared cold kitchen and tent for meals, plus RV services. There are community standards to be developed for noise and disturbances and hard rules forbidding open fires, violence, weapons or drug-dealing, Lauby said. A village work requirement is also part of the deal.

The proposed RV village is to have a keypad system to enter and exit the facility, weekly trash pickup services, a SAVS village manager, half-time SAVS worker providing residents wrap-around services and a 24/7 onsite resident manager.

For the resident manager, O’Loughlin said, “We’re actually going to take a person who is unsheltered and they’re going to live there and work there, almost like a superintendent that you might see at an apartment building.”

Furthermore, Lauby said SAVS plans to have a 24/7 community hotline and a community oversight group to keep an eye out for any issues and meet with SAVS on a monthly basis.

According to the SAVS presentation, the site opening plan schedules that contracts be completed between SAVS and the city, county and St. Vincent de Paul in December, along with community and village resident outreach and hiring staff. This same month, the plan is to clear, grade, fence and light up the site, put up signs and cameras, prepare staff and residents and hire service providers for essentials like toilets, showers, WiFi and more.

The site opening plan outlines Jactions like moving RVs in from Morris Street, interviewing residents and letting them in, cleaning Morris Street and hosting community village meetings, per the presentation slides for January. O’Loughlin said the plans are to bring people in on a seniority basis, as unsheltered people who’ve been living in Sebastopol for a long time.

Townspeople remain wary of RV village

Tim Miller shared his insight as executive director of West County Community Services (WCCS). The local organization offers housing to formerly homeless people in Park Village, a mobile home park near the entrance of the city.

“In every single case in Sonoma County, when a community has stepped up an organization, such as SAVS or West County Community Services to manage a homeless population in a managed setting,” he said, “Los Guilicos, Park Village, the tent camp we had in Guerneville for five months — in every single case, crime went down, neighbors stopped attending the public meetings because there was nothing to discuss.”

Miller recalled that Fire Chief Bill Braga said calls to the fire department went down by 90% when WCCS started managing Park Village four years ago, housing 10 formerly homeless families in RVs in the park with about 18 families who’d been there for decades. There’s been little police involvement in recent times, he said.

“When there’s 24/7 oversight and people are safe for the first time, many of them in years, they have something to lose by acting out. On the street, they have very little to lose. When they have something to lose, the vast majority want to stay and work as partners with the provider to meet community goals and their own needs,” he said.

Other attendees of the Nov. 30 meeting were not impressed by the sound of the RV village pilot program. A number of parents with children enrolled at a charter school near the site were concerned about the rushed decision-making, lack of communication and potential safety issues.

One man openly shamed the council against the proposed village he described as an “encampment,” and another raised the issue of theft at Sebastopol Hardware. A different speaker expressed his concern that the new location could lead to houseless individuals sprawling into the surrounding areas.

An attendee stated she’d just moved to the area from San Francisco, “and I can tell you firsthand that homeless encampments do not work. We moved here specifically to give our children a better quality of life than what we had in San Francisco and we moved here specifically to go to this school.”

The proposed RV park village is intended to operate more like a temporary managed shelter than an outright encampment as exists on Morris Street, but the speaker also described the proposed site as an encampment and called attention to how the program would ban drug-dealing but not necessarily drug use in and of itself.

The Dec. 7 staff report states that SAVS had a drugs and alcohol policy that supports “a sober environment,” “‘harm reduction’ and ‘meeting people where they are on their path to recovery.’”

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org