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Petaluma unanimously approves purchase of ‘tiny homes’ to help curb homelessness

The Petaluma City Council this week agreed move forward with the purchase of 25 temporary housing units and two office units, as part of an effort to ease the city’s homelessness crisis.

The proposal, approved unanimously during the council’s meeting Monday night, directs $338,000 toward the purchase of the homes, with money coming from the $1.7 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars the city set aside last month for housing solutions.

“The city has taken a variety of different efforts in this regard, and it’s everything from supporting COTS to bringing in Downtown Streets Team, working on a number of affordable housing fronts, and just recently established a mobile showers program we’re just getting up and running. So we’re working this challenge from multiple angles,” said Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran. “We’re excited that we think we’ve found a really interesting and innovative product that can fill a niche in our community.”

With a goal of completing work in Decemeber of January, Petaluma will partner with organizations and nonprofits including the Committee on the Shelterless, the Petaluma Health Center and the Downtown Streets Team to organize the site, an extension of the COTS Mary Isaak homeless shelter. Officials are also considering a safe parking site that may come at a later date.

Along with 72-square-foot housing units, plans call for four showers and six toilets. It will also incorporate on-site services for residents, including mental and behavioral health services, substance abuse treatment, meal plans, job aid and more. Residents will be allowed to bring pets, which officials noted isn’t a feature typically offered at other shelters and short-term housing sites.

The interim housing project will allow city officials to purchase 25 shelter units and two, 120-square-foot office units from the Rohnert Park-based equipment vendor Quickhaven, one of four companies that submitted proposals after the city put out a request for qualifications Sept. 2.

The city also received proposals from Living Earth Structures, Homes 4 the Homeless and Pallet Shelters, but city officials said Quickhaven, which did not have the lowest bid, was the best choice thanks to environmentally friendly materials and energy efficient design.

“Last, but not least, we really wanted to think about the reputation and the responsibility of our community partners that we’re working with: Is there mission alignment? Was the project compatible with Petaluma design standards? The product - how was it going to provide a sense of home or a sense of community for the site?” said housing manager Karen Shimizu. “And also we asked for information regarding the company team and their experience.”

Organizers with Petaluma People Services Center, meanwhile, are pushing for an alternate plan that would feature management and construction by the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Petaluma, officials said during the public comment portion of Monday’s city council meeting.

“We also plan to draw upon the efforts of some of the homeless themselves to help build code-compliant shelters,” according to information on the organization’s website. “We have a design that we think has many advantages over the city’s huts: It is larger, provides 100% more storage and only costs around $5,000.”

Vice Mayor Brian Barnacle agreed the city should consider tapping Rebuilding Together Petaluma to help with project construction. Barnacle said he is excited about the proposal, but would like the design to reflect a way for residents to cook for themselves and others in each housing unit.

“My concern (is) with not having a kitchen,” Barnacle said. “One thing that often brings communities together is food, and cooking food for people is one really deeply personal way that people can make connections. And if we don’t give them that opportunity as a community, there’s a lack of investment in it.”

Council member Kevin McDonnell, the city’s representative on the countywide homelessness body, the Continuum of Care, said the interim housing project would help move community members from large encampments around the city, including one near Steamer Landing Park, which has been home to a dozen or more campsites through the years.

In Petaluma, the number of homeless residents is growing, reaching a three-year high of 296, according to the 2020 Sonoma County Homeless Census.

McDonnell, who has long advocated for services paired with housing solutions, said said that the project is especially important to give people services they need to find healing from obstacles they’ve gone through.

“We’re talking about our goal being eliminating homelessness,” McDonnell said. “After a year of being on the streets, the burdens are huge. And though you may sit by the riverside, the odds of nature’s healing outweighing the hurt in the soul is greater.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated Quickhaven was the highest bidder. Homes 4 the Homeless was the highest bidder. Quickhaven was the second-highest bidder.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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