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Sonoma County Gazette
SAFE Parking allows people to sleep safely in vehicles

Homeless Housing Solutions the County Could Implement Immediately

Jan 7, 2019


By Bob Higman

I spent several hours this last spring with a homeless woman I have seen, day after day, standing on the narrow strip of concrete that splits two fast-moving streams of cars where 4th Street becomes Highway 12 near the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Nancy, an articulate, funny and well-dressed middle-aged woman, shows a hopeful sign asking for money from westbound drivers waiting at a red light.

She gathers enough money to feed herself frugally and rents a motel room once every few weeks to take a shower and sleep indoors without worry, as she did while growing up nearby in Rincon Valley.  Like many homeless people, she is too proud to accept SSI.

We visited near her current base, two L-shaped cement walls built to shelter a gas-station-dumpster.  Nancy admitted to depression and I began to notice other compromising mental conditions.

Although she’d love to have a steady job and stable life, she suspects it won’t happen. She has too many disabilities to hold a job.

Nancy, like dozens of other homeless men and women I have met in my volunteer work, will spend the winter trying to stay dry, living on a thin mat of cotton towels under a plastic tarp. 

They deserve better – Sonoma County can do better if it funded and established safe parking and sanctioned campsites, two fast, cheap housing solutions, or a third inexpensive shelter, Galen’s Gardens.  Details later.

Former SAFE parking program in Santa Rosa


The lack of legal, safe parking for hundreds of people living in their vehicles across the county puts them at constant risk of harassment by bullies or police raps on the window to move on.  Portable toilets and washstands for a couple of dozen Parkers are inexpensive, but funding ran out.

In the winter of 2014, the Fairgrounds’ Parking Lot D with permanent toilets and showers hosted 20 to 30 vehicles each night, with space for more.  That was terminated by Supervisor Zane.

At the County Administrative Campus, about 30 people were allowed to sleep in their vehicles in a parking lot for many months. County staff members loved having them there, paid attention to them, and brought food and supplies, implying precious dignity to the residents, many of whom work low-wage full and part-time jobs.

After Catholic Charities ran out of money, a businessman began hosting about 15 cars a night at his commercial site with help from Homeless Action, dedicated volunteers. 

Hundreds more Parkers wait for a safe, legal place to sleep.

Although you might expect local churches to offer safe night-time parking on their unused parking lots, only a few churches in the county do.  

The drill is simple: Vetted daily by Catholic Charities, in after 8 pm., out before 8 a.m., no lights or sound above quiet conversation, leave no trace.

Creative funding would make more Safe Parking sites possible if our leaders cared enough.  A reliable template has been successful in other counties and states.


Cities in Oregon and Washington have many sanctioned camps for their homeless citizens.  A good example in Portland is Dignity Village, a mutually supportive community, offering shelter to 60 people every night since 2001. (Articles of Incorporation online). 

For several years City and county leaders here have been implored to allow trial sanctioned encampments with toilets, where homeless men and women can tent without being prodded to “Move on”.  Homeless Action, volunteers with long and deep experience in homeless relief, has offered to help maintain the camp.

Three Santa Rosa City Council members have signaled support for one or both of these proposals.   Victoria Fleming, the council’s newest member, holds a degree in social work, worked with homeless people in college and afterwards.   We hope she will join in approving homeless relief.


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