Petaluma plans tiny home village for homeless residents, marking shift in local attitudes
Oakland - In the shadow of an East Bay overpass, Miguel Elliott peered out of his driver’s side window, flashed an easy smile under tousled gray hair and offered a warning.
“It’s going to look like somewhere you don’t want to be,” he said to a reporter, before inching along the trash-strewn streets and into a nearby homeless encampment.
Elliott was there to guide the way to one of his latest creations – a cluster of adobe-style buildings offering services and community to homeless Oaklanders who have taken up residence on Caltrans property beneath Interstate 880.
Featuring protruding branches, painted flowers and roofs stocked with succulents, the structures – a kitchen, health clinic, pizza oven and more - have for the past six months offered an oasis amid burned-out vehicles and abandoned junk.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to this place,” said resident Jude Margacz, before pointing to the surrounding landscape, including his nearby RV. “Before this was here, it all looked like that. Cars and garbage…It’s amazing what it did for this place.”
Built and envisioned by nonprofits Essential Food and Medicine, Artists Building Communities and Elliott’s Petaluma-based Living Earth Structures, the unsanctioned community center is used for weekend pizza nights, hot showers and even minor medical care.
If not for the looming threat of demolition, this gathering spot would represent the type of resident-led, tiny home solution that homelessness activists have long sought. Sonoma County’s elected officials are beginning to embrace the approach, too, pushing forward with plans to spend millions building tiny home communities to serve homeless residents in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
The striking gambit comes as local leaders, mired in calls for change, confront the specter of surging homelessness in a region just now emerging from coronavirus-induced economic upheaval.
“We’re going to have to figure out, as a county, as a city, as a region, how we are taking care of our own,” Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn said in a phone interview July 15. “We’re a city that’s getting stronger because we’re rebuilding based on the needs that we are seeing. It’s a better approach than not dealing with it proactively.”
Nearly 18 months after Sonoma County supervisors established the 60-unit, Los Guilicos Village in east Santa Rosa amid pressure to disband a surging encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail, leaders across the county are piecing together plans for at least two more tiny home villages.
Santa Rosa is in discussions with county officials to partner for a second site within city limits. And in Petaluma, the county’s second-largest city, elected leaders are poised to tap $1.7 million in federal coronavirus relief funding for a village that could house more than two dozen residents.
Petaluma officials have targeted city-owned property near the city’s largest homeless shelter, the 80-bed Mary Isaak Center, for its inaugural village.
Early plans call for 25 of the tiny homes, which are typically smaller than 100 square feet, with no bathrooms or kitchens. Flynn said she wants the first shelters up before the rainy season begins.
The site surrounding the Hopper Street shelter is a mishmash of facilities, including the city’s vehicle fleet maintenance yard and the operations hub for North Bay Animal Services. The gleaming Courtyard by Marriott hotel, less than a year old, sits two blocks south, at the gateway to a new residential subdivision dotted with riverfront single-family homes.
“We have also looked at sites in other areas of town, but keep coming back to the proximity to (the shelter) as a key factor for operational efficiency,” Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran said in an email to the Petaluma City Council on Monday evening.
Cochran said staff envisioned the project as temporary, lasting three years, or until other housing options become available.