Santa Rosa's winter shelter for homeless opens early because of rain

With more rain arriving this week, Santa Rosa's winter shelter for the homeless is now open, a month earlier than last year. 

The National Guard Armory on Armory Drive has capacity to sleep as many as 130 people, during the coldest, wettest conditions.  

"This is not meant to be a housing solution, this is meant to save lives," said Jack Tibbetts, Executive Director of Saint Vincent de Paul for Sonoma and Lake Counties, and also a Santa Rosa City Council member for the past two years. 

The latest count estimates 3,000 homeless individuals in Sonoma County, more than half of them in

Santa Rosa. 
Tibbetts says the fire disaster of last year worsened the housing shortage. 

"Those who tend to be low income and living on the margins tended to be the ones who lost in that scenario," he told KTVU. 

And he expects a similar trickle effect from fires up north. 

"Anecdotally we're getting stories that people from Butte county are showing up here to live with relatives and friends." 

At the Armory shelter, a few dozen people were lined up and waiting to come in when the doors opened at 5:30 p.m. 

Each night, numbers have grown since the opening Nov.23, and as awareness spreads.

"We're getting the word out, that there is a safe space to sleep at night," said Shelter Director Brandon Rojas, " and we don't want to see any deaths or people getting sick out there."

At 6:30 p.m., a hot meal arrived, served buffet-style. Lights go out at 9 p.m., because everyone has to wake before dawn and leave so that California Guard activities can resume in the building. 

But as people bedded down on cushions, they accepted the restrictions without complaint. 

"It's wonderful here, warm and very profession, everyone is nice, like a light in our darkness," said Michael Taylor, 52.

"Before this, I was sleeping in my car like a dog. It was very cold."  

As the Armory opened, an previous flash-point in Santa Rosa's homeless crisis, was rekindling.

In the Roseland neighborhood, homeless people are re-populating a lot behind the Dollar Store on Sebastopol Road. 

"This property is not open to the public, it's fenced, and marked no trespassing," said Ben Wickham of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. 

Wickham was warning a dozen or so campers, they would need to leave by Tuesday morning or be arrested. 

Most of the homeless people who have pitched tents the past 24 hours, were also residents of the longtime camp that was cleared, under protest, last April.

Those tensions still exist. 

"You still haven't done what you were supposed to do for all the people out here," argued Steve Singleton, a leader of the camp, who vowed he would be arrested rather than move along again.   

"They need to be out now, they are not permitted to be here," Wickham told KTVU."There are shelter spaces available and other resources they can access rather than come here." 

But many campers say they prefer the camp to the year-round shelter, they describe as over-crowded and chaotic.   

"This is one spot that feels more comfortable," said 31-year-old  Danielle Landes, as she pitched a tent. 

"It's because we've been here the longest and it feels more like home, and everywhere else we try it just doesn't feel safe." 

Having to leave shelters during the day, or be separated from pets or possessions, are why people will endure miserable weather rather than go inside.   

"You have no place to put your stuff, you can't leave it or it will get stolen," said advocate Kathleen Finegan of Homeless Action. "So they stay here under dreadful circumstances because they think it's their best option." 

The seasonal shelter run by Saint Vincent de Paul tries to be flexible about what people can bring with them at night: such as dogs, bags, and bicycles.

As homeless people migrate around the city, evicted repeatedly, activists call for a safe, sanctioned, campground for them, with security and services. 

It is an idea with merit, says Councilman Tibbetts. 

"We should create a space that is secure, organized, and where police, fire and paramedic services can respond with ease," he said.

For now, the winter shelter adds one more temporary option, and will remain open until March, possibly longer if the weather warrants.