Santa Rosa church allows homeless encampment on property

In the North Bay, a proposed homeless camp on church property is generating opposition.

The encampment would be small- just six tents to start- but some people in the surrounding neighborhood are uneasy, and feel it's being forced on them.

In October, Santa Rosa declared a homeless state of emergency and urged  the community to come up with creative ways to help.  

First United Methodist Church was the first to step up.

The congregation already assists the needy with sheltering and meals, but decided to do more.

"There will be rules, there will be accountability," church committee member Richard Peterson-Jones told KTVU, describing the "transitional community" planned for the church campus on Stony Point Road.

A seven acre vacant lot adjoins the property, and that's where a fenced tent camp would be built, with food-preparation, sanitation, and security. 

Only high-functioning homeless people, making progress toward permanent housing, would be allowed to live in the camp.

"This is the spot that we've got," declared Peterson-Jones, "and we've got 2,000 unsheltered homeless people in Sonoma County, according to the latest census." 

It is a spot surrounded by residential properties, however, with an elementary school across the street. 

"Who's going to be responsible for what happens, does it take one child having an issue, getting stuck with a needle?" challenged neighbor Herb Dickerson, as he walked the rain-soaked property with KTVU.

Dickerson led a hastily-called community meeting Tuesday night, gathering residents who complain the camp was planned in secrecy.

They are now organizing against it.

"We are starting this war, and we're starting it now," said one woman participant, as health and safety concerns were discussed.

Critics have been assured all campers would be carefully screened, and the camp well- supervised, but they are not convinced. 

"It's going to attract more homeless, outside of anything they can control, and that they can monitor," predicted Dickerson.

City leaders acknowledge public outreach on the proposal could have been better, but believe the opponents could give the idea a chance before condeming it.

'We've had neighbors saying these homeless people are murderers, rapists and sex offenders and that is not the case," observed councilman Tom Schwedhelm.

Schwedhelm argues that stereotypes don't help anyone.

He commends the church for taking a creative approach on a tough issue.    

"City Hall alone cannot solve our homeless problem," he noted, "so we're hoping for community assistance, and we're hoping this is one solution." 

The church originally proposed as many as twenty people at the encampment, but scaled back in response to neighborhood concerns.