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What’s next for planned Petaluma tiny home village?

Petaluma leaders have committed more than $1 million toward proposed services and site development of a tiny home community meant to provide temporary housing to at least two dozen homeless residents by the beginning of next year.

The Petaluma City Council on Monday officially authorized $750,000 for demolition, furnishing and installing utilities at the People’s Village, which is set to be built near the COTS Mary Isaak Center, Petaluma’s largest homeless shelter. Council members also agreed to spend $612,000 for a host of services, including on-site mental health services, overnight security and case managers who will work with residents to develop care management plans.

The planned 27-home community is part of a suite of recent solutions to curb the city’s growing homelessness crisis. Despite some shipping-related delays, and concerns about ongoing costs, some Petaluma officials see the project as having the potential to build momentum.

“There is a path over the next 12 months as we further increase utilization at COTS, at the Mary Isaak Center, as this program comes online, we could potentially provide shelter for 50% of the folks who are currently unsheltered in Petaluma, which is really exciting,” said homeless services consultant Andrew Hening, who gave details about the proposed service plan during the meeting.

In Petaluma, 295 residents are experiencing homelessness, including 133 people who are considered unsheltered, according to the 2020 Sonoma County Homeless Census.

The tiny home village was approved in September, after the City Council in July authorized $1.7 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars to fund housing solutions in order to curb the growing homelessness crisis.

Chris Heath, project designer with MAD Architecture, which has partnered with the city to design and build the community, laid out how the site plan has evolved since it was introduced in September. He said, after consultation with the Petaluma Downtown Streets Team and with the city’s Public Works Department, the design team shifted parking lot and unit placement to make way for a bigger eating and recreation area.

Heath also said the site will include a smoking area and bicycle racks, as well as tree planters to create more scenery.

City officials used $338,000 to purchase building materials from the Rohnert Park-based equipment vendor Quickhaven, based on the company’s “quality, suitability, efficiency, cost as well as mission alignment,” according to housing manager Karen Shimizu.

But worries arose in recent weeks about whether or not the project would be completed on schedule, as shipping containers remain stuck in U.S. ports due to a pandemic-related worker shortage.

“Quickhaven has experienced some delays due to the supply chain, but they plan to have the units ready for us by January,” Shimizu said.

Council member Mike Healy worried that with the budget for services and site improvement, the relief funds would be quickly exhausted, creating a possible shaky future for the housing project.

“I don’t see how we run this program for more than a year and a half outlined in this budget, without dipping into general fund dollars or Measure U dollars, which I really don’t want to do unless we receive more grant support,” Healy said.

Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn in April asked the Sonoma County for $1.1 million in funding from the county’s Measure O mental health sales tax revenue.

The cost concerns could also hamper efforts to expand the tiny village concept in Petaluma, something city leaders have already shown interest in.

Healy said many council members visited the home of Anthy and Don O’Brien last week to examine a tiny home prototype they built, and some council members have eyed the grassroots effort as a way to expand the tiny village concept. But Healy said the budget questions at hand pose potential obstacles for the already-approved People’s Village, let alone future projects.

“Everyone loved it,” Healy said. “But I’m wondering how financially feasible it’s going to be to open a second site which would then have the security and operations expenses going with it.”

The interim housing community is the latest city effort to fight the ongoing homelessness crisis, with the City Council declaring a shelter crisis on Sept. 13.

Council members also approved for a $300,000 increase in funding for COTS, and launched the new SAFE Team program, a mobile crisis intervention unit which received $1 million in funding from the Measure U tax. Additionally, in June city officials renewed the contract for the Downtown Streets Team for $350,000 in order to continue providing unhoused residents with access to to services and job opportunities.

The recent efforts have come even as the city is locked in a legal battle with residents of a homeless encampment at Petaluma’s Steamer Landing Park. Since Oct. 5, the city has been barred by a federal judge from clearing the encampment from public property as the case works its way through the courts.

Residents at the growing encampment have protested over lack of water during the drought, something city staff have since corrected. And just this week, barbed-wire fencing was installed, cutting off access to private property near the site and squeezing the 12-15 campsites closer to the nearby riverside.

Residents of the encampment have longstanding complaints with the congregate setting at Mary Isaak Center, saying the traditional shelter fails to meet their needs and poses risk for COVID-19 spread and other health concerns. Many have expressed interest in the planned People’s Village.

COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez said discussion is ongoing about how and when residents will be able to move in. He said that while there is not yet a set date for the application process to open, Fernandez said outreach workers continue to relay information to community members so they have all the details they need when the time comes for them to sign up.

“We’re actually putting together an operations manual to work out all of those details,” Fernandez said. “We’ve got a lot of people who are unsheltered so we want to provide an opportunity for them to come into People’s Village. And of course we want to focus on those who are the most vulnerable.”

He added that he couldn’t have asked for a better partnership for the People’s Village project than the one COTS has with the city of Petaluma.

“I think everyone is working pretty fast and furious on this project because winter is upon us, it’s raining, so we want to move as quickly as possible,” Fernandez said.

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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