Petaluma City Council approves homeless action plan
One week after police vacated one of the city’s largest homeless encampments, Petaluma leaders laid out an action plan that will not only focus on a “housing first” approach but also aims to halt possible future homeless situations.
The plan was unanimously passed at a City Council meeting Monday evening, after city consultants charted an extensive list of key strategies aimed at mitigating and stopping chronic homelessness by the end of 2024.
“The city of Petaluma is showing an above-average demonstration and commitment to try and serve people experiencing homelessness,” said principal consultant Andrew Hening, who has been working with city officials for the past year in forming the plan. “There really is, it seems to me, a genuine willingness to want to help people.”
The plan outlines eight different strategies, which include creating a “housing-focused” outreach system, exploring shelter options for vulnerable populations and tackling root causes of the city’s homeless crisis. More specific strategies included securing funds for new housing case management, securing new housing vouchers and more housing support for military veterans.
The plan also calls for the city to redesign and improve its coordinated entry system so no Petaluman experiences homelessness for more than 90 days. This includes emergency rental assistance and making it easier to apply for such aid.
The plan was introduced at a May 31 public community input session, where residents called for alternative shelter options, as well as a deeper focus on mental health and substance abuse support for the homeless. That workshop came after months of discussions with staff, organizations and residents to gather data and feedback in determining overall need in the city, Hening said.
In a partnership with COTS and Burbank Housing, city officials in March secured nearly $16 million in the state’s Project Homekey funding to create 60 new permanent supportive housing units at a hotel property on Montero Way. City staff hope to increase that to at least 200 units through Project Homekey, and add even more through other affordable housing projects. Hening said more housing units does not necessarily mean all new construction, noting that the city has the option of working with landlords to transform current houses and apartment buildings in order to increase inventory.
Other funding includes $800,000 from the city’s General Fund for homelessness programming, including the Downtown Streets Team, and $1 million for programs like the SAFE crisis intervention and prevention team. More than $3 million has been leveraged from city funding for affordable housing development (more than 330 units already being built). Meanwhile, Petaluma is also using $350,000 in annual Community Development Block Grant money, as well as $1.5 million in American Rescue Act funds for homelessness prevention, such as the construction of the 25-unit People’s Village near the Mary Isaak Center.
More recently, Petaluma received $1.3 million from the state’s Encampment Resolution Program, which assists local jurisdictions in ensuring the wellness and safety of people experiencing homelessness in encampments. The city is expected to use that money to provide case management services and housing placement for those at the Cedar Grove encampment. That outreach program is expected to begin July 1.
Hening said further details about how the city plans to secure more funding to retain future services will be revealed in the coming months.
”We’re going to be working with different funding partners to understand opportunities to leverage multiple funding streams,” he said.
Although the city’s strategic plan focuses primarily on the need for more housing, the public has called for alternative options to traditional shelter for the homeless. Resident Anthy O’Brien, a volunteer serving the city’s homeless population, called for safe occupancy parks or some other type of designated open space where people can camp instead.
“Tiny homes and motel rooms aren’t meant for everybody,” O’Brien said during the meeting. “We’ve hired the unsheltered (people) and have given them a bed to sleep in at night, and we find them in the morning on the floor. That’s where they’re most comfortable.”
Councilmember Brian Barnacle also asked if a managed encampment site or safe parking site would be included in the city’s plan. Hening indicated it could be a part of future discussions.
“This is certainly one of the areas where there was a lot of public feedback about what folks wanted to see, and I think it was evidenced again tonight,” Hening said.
Those calls came one week after more than a dozen people were cleared from their encampment near Steamer Landing Park, after a U.S. District Court judge lifted a monthslong injunction that barred police from removing the campers. The temporary restraining order, originally filed Oct. 5, 2021, had been extended three times, but was lifted after city officials argued they had done everything they could to offer housing assistance and other resources to those at the encampment.
In his presentation on the city’s plan, Hening addressed potential drawbacks, including potential staffing issues, the cost-of-living imbalance and more.
He also emphasized that the plan intends to end “chronic” or long-term homelessness by 2024, after Councilmember Mike Healy raised concerns that presenting language as ending homelessness altogether by that time could raise the bar too high, especially since the city has experienced some resistance from homeless residents over housing and shelter options.
With about 1,700 households in Petaluma earning less than 30% of the average median income, according to recent data, city staff plan to commit to tackling the root causes of homelessness in Petaluma. This includes strengthening local tenant protection measures, increasing support resources, deploying local dollars for the creation of extremely low-income housing, creating a living wage and making way for more behavioral health programs.
According to data from the Petaluma Health Center, about 750 households in the city had someone who experienced homelessness at some point in 2021. Right now nearly 300 people in Petaluma are considered homeless.
Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5208.