City Manager Darrin Jenkins gave a moving update on the status of homelessness in Rohnert Park during the city council’s meeting on September 28. His staff report, using powerful visual images in a PowerPoint presentation, asked the city council to make a choice. It said, “So, the city has two choices, opt out and opt for more random encampments and all the negatives that come with them; or strive to create housing, using mostly state and federal funds, to get people off our streets and out of our parks and creeks. After they are off the streets and in housing, then is it possible to leverage state and federal funds to provide services to help apply for disability and social security benefits, medical care, mental health, sobering programs, and job counseling.”
Jenkins set the stage for that choice in reviewing what has happened in Rohnert Park in the last few years. He showed the growth of homelessness from 2015 to 2020. In the 2015 count, there were 45 folks identified as being homeless. In 2020, the last count available, there was 248. A five-fold increase.
He said over the last two years over 80 encampments were identified and that two-thirds of the homeless are living out of their cars and recreational vehicles. According to him, those “numbers will likely grow.” He also reported that over the last five years the residents of Rohnert Park listed homelessness as an issue needing to be addressed. In 2016, 2017, and 2018 it was ranked sixth in importance by survey respondents. It rose to third in 2019 and now is the second most important issue in the 2020 survey. He said the clear message was “our people want something done about homelessness.”
Cities cannot address this problem by themselves. That’s where Homekey Program Grants play a critical role. As shown in the staff report, “On September 16, 2021, California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) released a Notice of Funding Availability for $1.45 billions of state and federal funds to provide housing for persons experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.” Further, “Funds will be awarded on a first-come-first-served basis for all eligible applicants. Applications open at the end of September, so time is of the essence in preparing potential applications.” So, Jenkins was asking the council to make a choice. Would Rohnert Park apply to build and operate an interim housing project or not? The council voted to apply.
The proposed project site is at 751 Rohnert Park Expressway. This is city property across from Rancho Verde Mobile Home Park. It would be between the Expressway and West Copland Creek Trail. As envisioned, it would provide 56 ADA Beds, have bathrooms, laundry, and indoor dining facilities with on-site administrative support buildings. It would include 20 parking spaces, a pet area, and a community garden. The goal would be to get folks off the street into short term shelter which usually lasts between 3-6 months. During that period, they could be assisted with accessing other services as they prepare for transitioning to more permanent housing options.
During the council discussion, Councilmember Willy Linares said, “our residents are open to finding solutions,” and “I believe this is the right thing to do.” Vice Mayor Jackie Elward said, “We are worried and that’s okay,” but “we have to come together and find solutions.” Mayor Gerard Giudice stated, “Project Homekey is a once in a generation opportunity,” and “We have to seize it.” Council members Susan Hollingsworth Adams and Pam Stafford were absent at this meeting but are on record that the homelessness issue must be addressed. In a related item, the council adopted a resolution approving the addition of a Code Compliance Officer to enable staff to better address future and existing homeless encampments.
In other council news, Cindy Bagley, Director of Community Service made two presentations. The first was a discussion on a project location for using Proposition 68 funding. The city will receive $204,598 under this funding program. “Funds are available for local park rehabilitation, creation, and improvement grants” with the city having to make a 25 percent matching contribution. Lydia Park in L-Section was approved as the site to be upgraded with the match costing the city $51,149. Bagley also presented a report on the Recreation Facility Use Master Fee Schedule. These are fees “for the use of city recreation facilities and sports fields.” It was last updated in June 2019. Bagley reported that in their analysis of fees, they found inconsistencies and inequalities. The recommendation was to update these fees to make them more uniform and consistent. The council agreed on both issues and Bagley will bring resolutions for both items for approval to a future meeting.