Homeless in Sonoma 2019

Homeless man with generator rescues powerless homeless shelter

Story  David Bolling

Life is not without irony, especially when you’re homeless. Consider what happened to Sonoma’s only homeless shelter during the October PSPS blackout, when parts of the town lost power.

The Haven is an eight-bed emergency shelter owned and operated by Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS) next to the Sonoma Police Station. It provides day services—including breakfast and lunch, laundry, showers, and charging ports for mobile phones and laptops—to as many as 40 people a day. Its services provide a lifeline to those with nowhere else to go, and it also offers a professional caseworker to help clients refocus their lives and access various other public services.

Without power, that bastion of support is shut off.

So when PG&E’s PSPS arrived and the power disappeared, SOS Executive Director Kathy King had multiple refrigerators full of donated food and no power to keep them cold, not even a portable generator. What to do?

John Hubbenette

Enter John Hubbenette, who is homeless but living in an aging motorhome that happens to have its own generator. Hubbenette pulled up to the Haven, ran a couple extension cords into the building, and saved the day.

Which means that it took a homeless man to save the homeless shelter.

“He really did save the day,” says King. “Without his generator we would have lost all that food.”

That said, the shelter was without its own power for almost a week, a major disruption for a program serving close to 100 people a month. And the number of people served always increases as winter arrives, with rain and colder temperatures.

King says SOS programs are, at best, a stopgap. “We know we’re not solving the homeless problem. I’ve never said that. We’re just trying to mitigate the things that are happening to people as a consequence of having no place to stay.”

Hubbenette himself is a good example. Interviewed in the parking lot outside the Haven, he says he’s a master mechanic who once owned a trucking company and grossed $100,000 a year “every year.”

But then, he says, “I went through a bad divorce, lost the house, and here I am.”

He says he could easily earn at least $1,000 a month if he had a garage to work in. “I do lots of brake jobs, and I only charge $50 an hour,” he says. “That’s like half of a regular shop. But other repairs, you’ve got to be inside.”

Hubbenette says he’s on a lottery list for a low-income apartment in the Springs, and would much rather live in a house. “A motorhome is just a place to stay dry in the rain.” And living in a motorhome means he has to move it every 72 hours to avoid violating the county ordinance regulating car camping.

King has struggled to win ongoing approval from the Sonoma City Council for limited car camping in the police station parking lot and, despite some neighborhood opposition, she says the council has given tentative approval for a program to begin, following review of new rules and regulations.

The current plan limits overnight parking to 10 cars, with RVs and campers prohibited. Hours will be limited to between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m., with no drugs or alcohol allowed. If the rules are broken, violators will be drug-tested and refused food and shower services.

SOS will provide a portable restroom unit, extra garbage cans, and overnight security from a service that will patrol the parking lot three times each night. SOS staff will clean the parking lot each morning.

Car campers will have to register for a permit with the SOS case manager, and each applicant will be vetted through police records and Megan’s Law. King plans to provide hot dinners to the car campers  and says there can be more than one person per car. She says she knows of a father who was car camping with his 18-year-old daughter, while the girl’s boyfriend car camped “next door.”

King say a recent survey of 36 car camping applicants revealed that half were over 50 years old, four were over 70 and 10 have jobs.

While the indoor, overnight capacity of the Haven is limited to short-term emergencies, the Sonoma Alliance Church on Watmaugh Road will again provide wintertime overnight space for up to 15 people, for sleeping only, from December 1 to March 31. Unlike last year, when neighbors complained about homeless people from the church wandering through the neighborhood, the church now has a county permit to house people at night, but will not provide food. And all overnight visitors will have to be shuttled to and from the property in a vehicle provided by SOS; no private cars will be allowed at the site. Applicants for the church site need to be at SOS by 5 p.m., where they will be fed dinner, before being transported to the church.

Additional homeless outreach is being extended by La Luz, Vintage House, the First Congregational Church, SHARE Sonoma, the Interfaith Shelter Network, Social Advocates for Youth, the Kenwood-Glen Ellen Rotary Club, which supplies sleeping bags, and numerous individual volunteers, including former Sonoma mayor Larry Barnett—who cooks a community dinner meal once a month at La Luz—and his wife, Norma, a retired social worker who serves as SOS caseworker.

Clients for food and other services at the Haven are welcomed between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. During that time a hot breakfast is served and visitors can charge a telephone, do laundry, meet with the caseworker, and take a shower (King says there were 234 showers in September).

The Haven also provides cold lunches and dispenses $20 vouchers for clothes from the Bon Marche thrift store in Sonoma, and emergency hotel vouchers can be given for occasional emergencies.

It’s a lot of work to juggle, and SOS has a staff of nine to keep all the balls in the air.

And none of this, King repeats, does anything to address the underlying problem of homelessness that, she says “is trending up in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m sort of at a loss at this point. We try to keep people fed and warm and dry. And then, where can they go?” 

Lawsuit Challenges Transcendence Shows

Park Rangers group want to end London Park Partnership

An association of state park rangers has filed a lawsuit against California State Parks, demanding a review of the number of musical theater programs presented each year at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and claiming that the current contract governing the performances violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The programs are part of the Broadway Under the Stars performance series, produced by the Transcendence Theatre Company and initiated in 2012, just as some 70 California state park units—including both Jack London State Historic Park and the nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park—were slated for closure during a state budget crisis. The state had simply run out of money.

Both parks stayed open only because nonprofit groups contracted with State Parks to take over operations and assume fiscal responsibility for their operational costs. The public/private partnership model was made possible by targeted legislation, AB-42, introduced by then state assemblyman Jared Huffman.

The Jack London Park nonprofit, an outgrowth of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, was established as Jack London Park Partners (JLPP) in 2012, almost in concert with the creation of the nonprofit Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC), which had been looking for a venue to produce community-based, professional-quality musical performances, ideally outdoors. On the verge of closure, State Parks officials approved a contract for TTC to perform within the stone-walled ruins of the park’s old winery. It seemed a match made in heaven, and part of the agreement was that Transcendence would contribute $5 from every ticket sold to the park. By 2019, the theater company’s contribution had topped $500,000, and the JLPP had more than doubled park attendance—to more than 100,000—without taking a cent of state money.

Meanwhile, the JLPP successfully funded a complete, $1.5 million renovation of the House of Happy Walls Museum, focusing new attention on Jack’s remarkable wife, Charmian London, and giving visitors a whole new window into the lives of both Londons.

Notwithstanding these achievements, the lawsuit filed by the California State Park Rangers Association (CSPRA), led by retired ranger Mike Lynch, argues that the theater performances are inconsistent with the park’s general plan. In a statement accompanying the lawsuit, Lynch writes, “The winery ruins are part of the core historical district established for the protection of the historical and archeological features that are the very reason the park was created. This proposed action (an expanded performance contract) is in violation of California State Park policies and also a variety of state laws designed to protect historical and cultural resources in the California State Park System.”

Tjiska Van Wyk, the retiring executive director of JLPP, argues vehemently that, “in order to insure the future of the parks, you have to improve community participation. Which is what we have done.” JLPP has recruited more than 300 volunteers to support every aspect of park management, including the Transcendence performances. And, adds Van Wyk, under the disputed park contract, “We’re only asking for six additional shows. In all the Transcendence history, there have been no ‘incidents,’ no environmental impacts, and we poured $225,000 into sustaining the winery ruin’s walls. I think what they’re alleging is just baseless.”

Susan Hoeffel, chair of the TTC nonprofit board, said Transcendence is now a party of interest in the suit, along with JLPP, and “together we’re taking this very seriously.”

One aspect of the dispute that has somehow escaped media attention is an October 8, 2019, CSPRA resolution calling for an end to all nonprofit management of state park units. The CSPRA resolution insists that all state park units currently managed by nonprofits (there are five, including Jack London and Sugarloaf) be returned to state parks control. The rationale given in the group’s resolution states, “There have been documented major problems with the (Parks) department essentially handing over the keys to a park to a nonprofit organization and effectively saying ‘Don’t wreck it.’

This position stands in direct contradiction to the state’s 2015 Parks Forward Commission Plan, “an ambitious 2025 vision of a reinvigorated California park experience through a new park model that calls for collaborative park management and broad engagement of people, partners, businesses, and communities.” In other words, more public-private partnerships (not fewer) is a good thing.

A case in point is the fact that Jack London Park Partners have, on staff, a director of private and fundraising events and venue rentals, a director of programs and volunteer management, a retail and visitor services manager, a tours and education manager and a finance and human relations manager, all positions that never existed under State Parks Management.

Longtime State Parks employees who care deeply about the resources they shepherd may be sincerely concerned about the future of their parks and, perhaps, the future of their jobs.

But supporters of the TTC programs argue that a lawsuit to return to the failed practices of the past won’t solve any problems.

Hoeffel says a settlement meeting is scheduled for early December in Sacramento with attorneys for both sides. “We’re very confident about the outcome,” she says, “and we’re very seriously engaged.”