City of Sonoma struggles with homelessness; parking lot becomes flash point

Wine country is not exempt from homeless issues. 

Wednesday night, the Sonoma City Council reviewed shelter services and overnight parking that are increasingly in demand.  

Also rising: complaints from the public. 
"We don't want the drugs and the alcohol and the swearing," said parent John Holden, unhappy with the influx of homeless people.

Holden's daughter Hannah, 8, plays softball at the Field of Dreams park complex, in the heart of Sonoma. 

That particular field shares a parking lot with The Haven, a small shelter.

Homeless campers are also allowed to sleep in their cars, with permission, overnight. 
"Kids don't want to get out of the car, because it doesn't look safe" said Holden. "Like, 'who are these people, is it okay to get out of the car'?

Added wife Krista, "there's marijuana smoking, lots of people loitering, it feels unsafe to have our kids out here playing."

Sonoma has several hundred homeless people, in a city of 11,000.

The parking lot has become a flash point, even though City of Sonoma offices and the Police Department also share it. 

The visibility is why some campers go through a background check, get a permit and abide by the rules. 

"It's a lot safer, not worrying about being assaulted or robbed," said Gary Montgomery, 65, who lives in his pickup truck. "Plus anyplace you go in a truck, homeless and in a strange neighborhood, people will wonder what's going on, and think the worst."  

At Wednesday's council meeting, more than a dozen people chimed in on whether the homeless services should be relocated. 

"We are all one people, we are a community, compassionate with each other," said one speaker. 

"Try putting a shelter in someone's residential neighborhood and see what happens," warned another. 

In order to retain state and county funding, the shelter has had to evolve into a navigation center so walk-ins are way up. 

"We are evolving into a mess," said Sonoma city council member Madolyn Agrimonti. "Everyone thinks we're beautiful and we are beautiful but we have the same problems as larger cities, just less zeroes in our budget."  

Community complaints have brought more security patrols in the parking lot, during daylight when the fields are used.

But those providing services are realistic about moving to a new site.   

"No one is going to want us in their backyard, whether it's here, whether it's anywhere," said Dan Kahn, of Sonoma Overnight Support.

Worry intensified earlier this month when a man groped and exposed himself to a teenage girl on a bike path. 

"I don't want to be the parent who child has to be an unfortunate victim," said parent and coach Laura Fraize.

The girl fought the homeless man off, and he was later arrested. 

"Perhaps they need to go to larger cities that have the resources particular for their needs," said Fraize. 

But like many who are indigent, Montgomery, a retired cement mason, has roots in Sonoma. 

"I'm just trying to survive, lived here my whole life and don't have connections to anywhere else in the world but here," he said. 

Sonoma's council will take the issue up again in a few weeks, agreeing that at the very least, The Haven needs a new use permit more in line with the expanded services it is offering now.