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Petaluma plans tiny home village for homeless residents, marking shift in local attitudes

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As the coronavirus wanes, and the housing and homelessness crisis has come to the forefront for area leaders, the Argus-Courier sought to determine how Petaluma might respond. Argus-Courier Editor Tyler Silvy and photographer Crissy Pascual toured encampments in Oakland and Novato to review how homeless residents build community, and how those lessons could steer solutions to what has become a protracted public health threat.

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.

The Committee on the Shelterless could soon expand its footprint surrounding the Mary Isaak Center homeless shelter in Petaluma, as city officials have plans to install a tiny home village, the second of its kind in Sonoma County. (COURTESY OF JOHNATHAN SEMINOFF)
The Committee on the Shelterless could soon expand its footprint surrounding the Mary Isaak Center homeless shelter in Petaluma, as city officials have plans to install a tiny home village, the second of its kind in Sonoma County. (COURTESY OF JOHNATHAN SEMINOFF)

“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.

The move comes in the wake of Santa Rosa’s decision to open a sanctioned camp at the city’s west side Finley Community Center last March, and just as talks are heating up between Santa Rosa and county officials about a joint homeless village somewhere in the city.

“We are actually in discussions with the county about collaborating on a project, and our hope is to draw from their lessons learned at Los Guilicos as well as our lessons learned at the Finley sanctioned encampment,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said.

Although the countywide homelessness numbers dropped by 7% between 2019-20, there are still 2,745 people without stable housing living in the county. And in Petaluma, the numbers are growing, reaching a three-year high of 296, according to the 2020 Sonoma County Homeless Census.

Petaluma’s push toward tiny homes has come with little public fanfare, as city officials have worked behind the scenes, touring sites and researching builders. Cochran said in a phone interview that he has spoken with the team at Pallet Shelters, the Tacoma, Washington-based organization that built Los Guilicos Village, as well as Rohnert Park-based Quick Haven and Sonoma Applied Village Services. City staff have not considered Living Earth Structures.

Flynn said the local village would come with services, likely supplied by the Petaluma-based homelessness services nonprofit Committee on the Shelterless, commonly referred to as COTS.

The nonprofit signaled its support for the program in a June op-ed in the Argus-Courier, when CEO Chuck Fernandez pitched sanctioned camps, safe parking or tiny homes as a compromise for homeless residents who aren’t comfortable with the barracks-style housing at traditional shelters.

COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)
COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)

Fernandez has also indicated a willingness to raise money for the effort. But ongoing funding for the management of a homeless village remains an open question. It’s one Flynn said the city must address, one way or another.

“We’re just looking forward to seeing this on the ground,” Flynn said. “There are a lot of people, both in the city and in our partnerships that are really looking forward to this program.”

With some reservations, the Petaluma City Council is unanimous in its support for the city’s first tiny home village, which staff presented to council members for the first time Monday night.

The $1.7 million earmarked for the project, though, was part of an $8.3 million suite of investments that has split the council. With no agreement on other parts of the package, a final vote on the tiny home proposal must wait until the council’s next meeting, Aug. 2.

“I think we’ll get through this,” said Mike Healy, the council’s senior incumbent. “It was just a little painful (Monday) night.”

Elliott and his earthen cob structures have been a fixture in Petaluma and Sonoma County for the better part of a decade.

He tried to build his first cob structure, made from soil, water and organic matter, at an elementary school playground in Cotati as a 9-year-old after his class toured Rancho Adobe Petaluma on the east side of town.

“I was fascinated by the concept of using earth as a building material,” Elliott said, adding that he also studied the Miwok Village at Pt. Reyes. “I asked if I could build one at the playground…I came to school the next day with my pick-axe and shovel, and started digging.”

Artist Miguel Elliott, a Petaluma native, stares out from a community kitchen he built for homeless Oakland residents beneath Interstate 880 on Monday, June 21, 2021. Elliott envisions being able to do similar cob construction projects in Sonoma County. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)
Artist Miguel Elliott, a Petaluma native, stares out from a community kitchen he built for homeless Oakland residents beneath Interstate 880 on Monday, June 21, 2021. Elliott envisions being able to do similar cob construction projects in Sonoma County. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)

As an adult, Elliott, who calls himself “Sir Cobalot,” has become a sort of local cob evangelist, hauling one of the tiny, adobe-style homes through Sonoma County’s streets and touting their benefits at myriad community events.

Beneath the freeway in Oakland, at Cob on Wood, named for Wood Street, which runs parallel to the freeway, Elliott’s structures were built with leftover pallets, and are insulated with trash, something he touts as a win-win.

Petaluma City Council member D’Lynda Fischer said she’s drawn to Elliott’s cob buildings, as well as his Living Earth Structures business model, which involves residents in the construction of the buildings they’ll eventually use. She said she recognizes him from his appearances at Rivertown Revival, an annual Petaluma festival, and she wants to support him.

“It’s a prime opportunity to replicate that model, where you bring members in need and community members who are wanting to give together and empower people to create their own home,” Fischer said.

Although he hasn’t had conversations with Petaluma, Elliott said he has been invited to submit a proposal for 50 units to the homelessness services nonprofit DEMA as part of that organization’s efforts to craft a proposal for county leaders. It would be his most ambitious build to date.

“The Board of Supervisors in Sonoma County have expressed their enthusiasm and interest over the years,” Elliott said of his structures, which take a month to build. “It’s great that I finally have an opportunity to present this proposal, this idea, which is a long time coming. It’s time to think outside the box.”

Elliott has had commercial success marketing the structures and backyard play places for suburban families in the North Bay. He hosts workshops and school demonstrations, too.

But he said he’d prefer to pivot to more meaningful work.

“Now I just feel like I have a duty to offer this kind of construction to people who really need it, and not so much as a luxury item for people who want a small house in their backyard.”

Before the 300-person encampment along Santa Rosa’s Joe Rodota Trail stunned Sonoma County in late 2019 and early 2020, the idea of a government-sanctioned tiny home village, a safe parking lot or even portable toilets at campsites existed only in activists’ dreams.

Once described by Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins as an “epicenter of lawlessness,” the Rodota Trail encampment surged as the cold, wet 2019 winter set in.

Residents lived in muddy, rat-ridden squalor along a nearly 2-mile stretch of trail, essentially cutting off access to the popular concrete biking and walking path that connects Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Police responded to hundreds of calls ranging from thefts to stabbings. Propane tank explosions rocked the camp, sparking fear among neighbors about wildfire risks.

The housing-first mantra espoused by many homelessness officials has traditionally eschewed tiny homes, safe parking or services offered at existing camps - anything other than permanent supportive housing.

Activists called the approach “cruel and unusual punishment” for the hundreds of residents lining the Rodota Trail without access to running water, trash services or portable toilets. Then things changed.

“The Joe Rodota Trail (encampment) created the pressure to get citizens to say, ‘We need a solution,’” said Patrick O’Laughlin, a board member with the homelessness services nonprofit SAVS. “That was the inflection point, and I think since then, they’ve seen Los Guilicos operating for a few years without problems.”

The homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa fronts the Casa del Sol townhouse complex in this January 2020 Press Democrat file photo. (KENT PORTER/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)
The homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa fronts the Casa del Sol townhouse complex in this January 2020 Press Democrat file photo. (KENT PORTER/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)

Jack Tibbetts is a Santa Rosa City Council member and executive director for St. Vincent De Paul, the homelessness services nonprofit that operates Los Guilicos Village for Sonoma County.

Tibbetts said tiny home villages have intrigued him since he toured examples in the Pacific Northwest while in college.

The idea gained no purchase among Tibbetts’ housing-first colleagues on the board – at least early in his tenure, which started in 2016.

“It’s taken us three to four years since we started those conversations,” Tibbetts said. “In that time, Santa Rosa has built two dozen rooms. That’s 24 rooms. In the meantime, what did we do to improve life for people experiencing homelessness?”

But he said he still wasn’t sure how well the camp would work when he took the reins at Los Guilicos Village a year and a half ago.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts , left, talks with Richard Shore, a resident of nearby Oakmont, at the site selected by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for a temporary homeless camp at the county's Los Guilicos campus, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. Tibbetts is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County, which is the group contracted to oversee the camp. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)
Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts , left, talks with Richard Shore, a resident of nearby Oakmont, at the site selected by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for a temporary homeless camp at the county's Los Guilicos campus, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. Tibbetts is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County, which is the group contracted to oversee the camp. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)

It cost the county $1.2 million upfront to build 60 tiny homes at the base of Hood Mountain, across Highway 12 from 5,000 older adults who live in Santa Rosa’s sprawling Oakmont retirement community. Monthly costs hover around $130,000, and each month anywhere from five to 10 people transition to more permanent housing, Tibbetts said.

The camp has had its issues, Tibbetts acknowledged, but none that have spilled over into Oakmont, a primary concern for residents there who packed town hall meetings as the camp was being built.

Since it opened, with hot showers, fresh meals and a laundry list of services, Los Guilicos Village has served 168 people, has permanently housed 55 and has seen dozens seek help with drug or mental health problems, according to data compiled in May.

Karen Lopez sweeps the area in front of her tiny home at Los Guilicos Village on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. (JOHN BURGESS/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)
Karen Lopez sweeps the area in front of her tiny home at Los Guilicos Village on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. (JOHN BURGESS/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)

The perceived success of Los Guilicos has not only sparked greater interest in the solution locally, but has drawn interest throughout the West Coast and beyond, Tibbetts said.

“We’re seeing a proliferation of these tiny villages across the nation,” he said. “We have actively consulted to 14 different cities. Of those, five have already built these, propped them up, and they’re occupied.”

Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, co-founder of Essential Food and Medicine, agreed that the model beneath Interstate 880 can be replicated. But she had reservations that government-led action would be successful.

“Here it works because it’s free and it’s by the people,” she said. “That communal nature gives collective ownership, and so then everybody wants to take care of it – because it’s precious.”

But Tibbetts was struck by the same phenomenon at Los Guilicos, where his nonprofit operates under a government contract to provide services to residents.

After a year and a half, Tibbetts said he has settled on the secret ingredient he couldn’t quite describe when touring similar sites: accountability.

“People came in and they got four walls and a roof and a door they could lock,” Tibbetts said. “They didn’t have a time limitation, so they were able to breathe a sigh of relief. When that house became a home, they had something to lose for the first time in their lives.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county, including Petaluma, said the push to provide more housing types comes in part from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Martin v. Boise. The ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in December 2019, protects the right of homeless residents to sleep on sidewalks, public trails or public parks if alternative shelter isn’t available.

“Housing first is great, but talk about the most expensive option off the bat,” Rabbitt said. “If someone’s on the street, it doesn’t mean they’re waiting for a room to open up. This is why you’ve got to have all of these different options.”

Petaluma leaders have touted the prospective village’s ability to ease pressure on police, clean up city streets and contribute, ultimately, to the city’s goal of ending homelessness.

With a timeline of “yesterday,” Flynn said the pressure is on for Petaluma to act.

“You’ve got to have an end goal. Our goal is to end homelessness one person at a time,” she said. “It’s developing the tools and building a muscle that we have never built before in this city – and have always relied on others to address. We want to be part of the solution.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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