Encampment Clearings and Interim Housing Solutions (IHS)

With news of the upcoming Steamer Landing encampment clearings on Oct. 6, COTS staff wanted to provide information to the community about the encampments, the clearing process, and how we as a community can help.

In July of 2021, the Petaluma City Council voted to allocate $1.7 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) towards Interim Housing Solutions for those experiencing homelessness. Behind the scenes, COTS has been working with Karen Shimizu, Petaluma’s Housing Manager, and other City staff to develop a plan for an emergency shelter site made up of small individual units (similar to a tiny home) on the Mary Isaak Center campus. COTS will provide services while the City of Petaluma will provide funding and additional land around the Mary Isaak parking lot for the placement of the emergency shelter units.

On September 20, 2021, the Petaluma City Council unanimously approved the purchase of 25 emergency shelter units from QuickHaven and two portable offices for COTS staff. COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez and Shelter Services Manager Robin Phoenix will present the details of the programs and services to be offered as well as the capital and operating budgets at the City Council meeting on November 15, 2021.

If any of your questions are not answered below, please email development@cots.org for more information.

Typically, encampment residents are unhoused individuals who are resistant to shelter options and prefer to live out of doors, sometimes with pets, friends nearby, or even within a community they have built for themselves.

Unhoused individuals who resist shelter or housing options generally have their own very specific reasons. For many, addiction and mental health issues are the barrier. However, veterans of the US military, ex-prisoners, victims of sexual violence, those who grew up within the foster care system, people with pets, and others also may have very personal reasons they don’t trust institutions or cannot comfortably live in dorm-style congregate shelters. This has intensified during COVID, when that lack of trust might be exacerbated by fears around viral transmission. Homeless individuals are at higher risk of COVID-19 due to close living quarters and a lack of accessible hygiene options. For some, the perceived risks of shelter outweigh the benefit.

Encampments are cleared when they encroach on private property or when they are considered a safety hazard for the community.

If you visit an encampment, you will see some tent areas that are tidy and well-organized with a homey feel. Others can be disorganized, even chaotic. When debris accumulates close to waterways, private property, or roads, or when the encampments become a health and safety hazard for the encampment’s residents themselves, a clearing might be ordered by local authorities.

Clearings are performed by whomever has authority/jurisdiction over the encampment area. For example, recent encampment clearings on the Joe Rodota Trail have been ordered by the Santa Rosa Police (for parts of the trail within the city limits) or by Sonoma County Regional Parks Department (for parts of the trail outside Santa Rosa). Within the City of Petaluma, encampments are cleared by the Petaluma Police Department (PPD).

In 2018, by order of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, cities are prohibited from clearing encampments unless they can offer unhoused residents an alternative place to stay. In December 2020, during a COVID-19 outbreak at Sam Jones Hall, for example, an encampment clearing was postponed because Santa Rosa officials could not offer residents a shelter bed. Officials are also required to provide advance notice and storage options for residents prior to any clearing.

No matter who orders a clearing, COTS Outreach Specialists perform an important service in keeping residents informed of their options. COTS works closely with the Petaluma Police Department prior to all clearings to update encampment residents, provide options for shelter and housing, and offer supportive services.

COTS staff meet every Monday with representatives of the PPD and other local partners (including SAFE Team, Downtown Streets Team, Petaluma River Park Foundation, and more) to discuss unhoused individuals in our community and the encampments where they live. This allows us to better understand our unhoused neighbors and to link individuals with services best suited to their needs. This meeting also allows all our community partners to help encampment residents prepare for clearings. Typically, COTS Outreach Specialists will discuss any future clearings with encampment residents and find out what options they are open to. COTS staff then link residents to available shelter beds and services and help them relocate prior to the clearing if at all possible. Our aim is for encampments to disband organically prior to any clearing, with residents connected with appropriate services, to minimize the impact and trauma of clearings on residents.

COTS’ Outreach Specialists connect with individuals experiencing homelessness and offers them the COTS programs and supportive services most appropriate for their needs. These include shelter, meals, legal advocacy, medical care, and substance abuse treatment.

Outreach Specialists may transport unsheltered individuals to medical or legal appointments, may serve as advocates at Homeless Court, and can refer individuals directly into County detox and/or rehab programs and provide additional support during and after treatment. Outreach Specialists work collaboratively with the Petaluma Police Department to ensure safe and trauma-informed engagements with unsheltered individuals.

COTS’ Outreach Specialists also serve as a resource for businesses in Petaluma. Outreach Specialists are available to present to hospital staff or other business leaders about the presence of unsheltered individuals in our City and what strategies can be used to address concerning behaviors.

Some encampment residents are open to shelter stays or detox, and COTS’ Street Outreach program overall has impressive results: in FY21, Outreach Specialists assisted 374 people, of which 27% of those exited from the program entered into shelter. Others, however, are likely to simply move their tents to another outdoor location.

According to the 2020 Point in Time count, 90% of homeless individuals in Sonoma County would accept housing if it were affordable and available. COTS staff have grappled with the desire to serve those who might not be open to dorm-style shelter but who would otherwise accept emergency housing. We believe that as a community, we have the will and the resources to find another option. And we are joined in this belief by the City of Petaluma, which is partnering with us to create an Interim Housing Solution to address homelessness in the fall and winter of 2021-22.

The Interim Housing Solutions project will be a site of 25 emergency shelter units (similar to a "tiny home") on the Mary Isaak Center campus, reserved for service-resistant individuals or couples who would like to access wraparound services on the path to permanent housing without being locked into a shelter stay.

QuickHaven is a company based in Rohnert Park founded specifically to address the Bay Area homelessness crisis. Their emergency shelters are built with metal framing, locking doors, operable windows, and standard residential insulation to provide safety and comfort to residents. They offer long-term durability and can be built by three people in less than an hour with standard tools. This reduces maintenance costs over time and allows for future site adjustments should COTS and City staff wish to add units to the existing site or move them to a new location down the road.

QuickHaven also makes a point of hiring staff with lived experience of homelessness as part of their commitment to our community, and we hope that we will be able to connect COTS clients with employment opportunities at QuickHaven when appropriate throughout our partnership.

After the City Council approved purchase of the emergency shelter units from QuickHaven in September, we entered into an estimated 9-week lead time for production and delivery. Our hope is to open the units for new residents beginning in December/January.

The units will be placed in the current Mary Isaak Center parking lot (while visitor and volunteer parking will move nearby). We hope that this placement will allow residents to be far-enough removed from the congregate shelter that they will not feel like they are living within the walls of an institution. A separate facility will offer restrooms, showers, and laundry to provide sanitation options not available within an encampment. Service/companion animals will be allowed. And residents will be provided with all the on-site services that COTS provides shelter residents, such as case management, regular nutritious meals, health care through our partnership with the Petaluma Health Center, mental health services, and more.

These shelter units are modeled on COTS’ dorm-style emergency shelter. Residents do not pay rent, just as they would not for a shelter bed. But just as a congregate shelter bed has a limited length of stay, IHS residencies are capped at 180 days. COTS staff will work with residents during that time to find permanent housing.

The following is a partial list of essential services that our Interim Housing Solutions site will offer to participants:

Case Management
Ongoing case management is offered to all residents. Meetings are housing-focused with continual redirection towards achievement of housing goals. Case management includes referrals to COTS permanent housing programs and other low-income housing opportunities such as Section 8 waitlists and Burbank Housing waitlists. Case managers utilize COTS’ Intake Assessment and Individual Action Plans (IAPs) for the basis for individualized case management offerings.

Clients have access to City and County bus passes as well as Clipper cards for regional travel for medical care, employment opportunities, housing opportunities or social service appointments. In some instances, clients may have access to Lyft rides if abovementioned appointments are not accessible through use of public transit.

Social Supports & Client Enrichment Services
IHS residents are welcome to join any life skills groups offered at the Mary Isaak Center. They are also invited to participate in one-on-one meetings with COTS’ Social Supports Manager and/or Client Enrichment Manager.

Pathways Offerings
Clients who are interested in recovery support are invited to participate in COTS’ Pathways offerings. Group activities include multiple weekly meetings led by COTS’ Recovery Specialist and other trained staff members, and group transportation to local AA/NA meetings.

Additional Partnerships
IMDT (Interdepartmental Multidisciplinary Team) – County of Sonoma staff who are clinicians, AODS counselors (Alcohol and Other Drug Studies), client support specialists, social workers who partner with Safety-Net Departments (Probation, Public Defender, Eligibility Worker, Adult Protective Service, Housing Specialist) in the County to collaborate and coordinate care and goals of the homeless.

Petaluma Health Center – Upon entry to an IHS unit, all residents must visit our onsite PHC clinic to receive TB testing. A secondary benefit of having residents meet with PHC staff for this testing is that they are assessed for other immediate healthcare needs. PHC operates this clinic three days a week for anyone who needs medical assistance.

Legal Aid – COTS partnership with Legal Aid provides weekly onsite legal support for all COTS’ clients.

Job Link – Twice weekly, a Job Link representative is onsite at the Mary Isaak Center to provide employment support.

Yes. A mailing address is essential for those applying to jobs or for permanent housing, and a stay in the IHS emergency shelter units will allow residents to use the address of the Mary Isaak Center for these purposes and to receive mail.

COTS staff will utilize the Petaluma By Names list to offer shelter units to vulnerable local individuals who are experiencing homelessness. In addition, we will accept direct referrals from COTS’ Outreach team, Downtown Streets Team, Petaluma Police Department, and the Petaluma Health Center. If a need arises for additional referrals, COTS will reach out to other homeless service and healthcare providers and will access Sonoma County’s Coordinated Entry By Names list.

After the opening of the IHS site, interested individuals or couples may complete the IHS application, which will be available through COTS’ Outreach team, Downtown Streets Team, or at the front desk of the Mary Isaak Center during lunch (11:30 – 12:30) or dinner (5:00 – 6:00).

Residents enter the IHS site for a period of 30 days. If there are no behaviors that interfere with Resident Behavior Agreement, residents are extended for an additional 30 days. Client behaviors continue to be assessed every 30 days for a maximum of 180 days.

Clients who have not achieved housing within 180 days will be exited from the program. These clients will be encouraged to enroll into Sonoma County Coordinated Entry System (CES) so that they can be considered for additional shelter/housing opportunities. Trained COTS staff can complete CES enrollment with clients.

• $1.7 million in funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act approved by the Petaluma City Council in July 2021. $338,000 of these funds are supporting the purchase of the emergency shelter units, while other monies will provide operating costs over three years to sustain the program.

• COTS is in the process of applying for additional funding from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

• COTS is grateful for the government support listed above. Yet government funding is often targeted towards specific aspects of a project (like the purchase of the units) while falling short of covering a project’s total operational costs. Additional funding will be essential to providing the wraparound services IHS clients need to be successful. To invest in this life-saving work, please visit our Ways of Giving page.

On Monday, November 15, 2021, COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez and Shelter Services Manager Robin Phoenix will present additional details of this plan to the City Council for approval. Join us by viewing the meeting at the link here and stay tuned for more information from COTS later this fall.