Story Corps
Local leaders gathering for the groundbreaking June 2022
photo credit: Marc Albert/KRCB
The city of Rohnert Park’s unsheltered population has increased fivefold in 7 years.... to more than 250 people in 2022.
After responding for decades in a way similar to many other California cities, earlier this year Rohnert Park began building small economical lodging paired with basic services and counseling.
In the Northern California Public Media documentary "From Homeless to Housed," showcases the policy shift and people behind Labath Landing, the new 60-unit housing project, and some of those calling it home.
According to those tasked with planning, designing and delivering this micro-village, the site is intended to relieve those living on the streets of constant stress and being in survival mode to find the mental and emotional capacity to focus on stabilizing their lives. 
Jenna Garcia is Rohnert Park's housing administrator,
"My hope for the residents here is that they're able to get stabilized, catch their breath, and then get everything pulled together that they need to move on into housing, where they'll be able to live and be and exist for the rest of their lives and never reenter homelessness. That's always the hope of projects like this."
Modest as Labath Landing is, considering the scale of homelessness in Sonoma a groundbreaking on a recent breezy afternoon, hopes were high that this initiative will play a considerable role in restoring lives and improving communities.
"I am proud to serve as Rohnert Park's mayor. Well, most of you know me, I'm Jackie Elward. Thank you so much for coming to this groundbreaking ceremony for the city's first interim housing project."
For the 60 people accommodated at the site, Labath Landing could make a big difference, helping people turn a corner, said Michael McFarland of the nonprofit HomeFirst.
"As we break ground here today, I hope we all think about the people who will very soon call this area home and the people who will come to this space because of what this space will provide them, they will see a path forward that they have not seen before. And they will walk this ground, knowing that it is only temporary and that they will soon be walking into their own permanent housing."

photo credit: 
As Garcia, the city's housing chief explains, the temporary housing has marked differences from a typical shelter.
 "It's going to be filled with modular units, it's going to be one room for each person. So interim housing, unlike emergency shelter where you've got a bunk bed and you're in a room with maybe a hundred people, you actually get a room to yourself. You have room for yourself, for your stuff, and most importantly for a lot of people, their pets---they're able to bring their animals with them. So, it's a program that really meets people where they are at and assures that we're able to serve folks that otherwise may not accept temporary housing."
For those living on the streets, or at the Roberts Lake Park and Ride, the wait may have seemed never-ending. At a time when replacing critical infrastructure can take decades, Garcia said, Rohnert Park moved at lightning speed since fall of 2021. 
"City council approved the application October 12th, we applied October 15th. We got the award the very end of December, right before Christmas and got the money three months later. We literally applied, submitted the application October 15th last year, the project is now completed and people are moving in...only a little more than a year later."
There are plenty of things those with a place to hang their hat at night take for granted. Having a spot is helping Leonel Paniagua Robles focus on his future, rather than fearing theft or constantly relocating.
"Before coming here we had to move often, which was tiring and a lot of hassle to move my things. Now, I have two dogs, which makes it more harder."
As Andrea Urton, CEO of nonprofit builder HomeFirst explains, finally having a roof and door is only one part of what officials and advocates are trying to achieve.
"Many people coming in are in a state of uncertainty and crisis. They've been on the street or in a loud congregate shelter, they've been worried about their things being stolen, where they are going to get their next meal, how to use the bathroom, how to stay safe."
To many locally, this new village of what look like construction trailers holds promise, part of a solution to an issue that has dogged California for decades.
Speaking at the ground breaking, Sonoma County Supervisor Chris Coursey said he's very hopeful.
"Getting off the streets is a huge first step. Being on the streets, homeless is very traumatic. It becomes a way of life, kind of a pathological way of life because its not the way that people are supposed to live. So, getting into a safe place, a place where they can have privacy, a place where they can have safety this is the first step in healing."
Comments that were echoed succinctly by Jackie Elward, Rohnert Park's Mayor.
"We want people to have their dignity back, even if they are going through hard times, we want them to feel treated like humans."
It's a problem on a national scale, and with national implications, according to Representative Mike Thompson, who said he strongly supports the project.
"There are too many people without access to housing and that creates all kinds of other problems. It disturbs their ability to get employed, some of them need health care, some need mental health. They need services that should be available, and if we have places like this throughout the country, those needs would be addressed a lot quicker."
Attributed by many to personal failings; addiction or job loss, one tragedy, like wildfire, can place anyone on a spiral toward homelessness...said Ryan Campbell with Swinerton Builders, the contractor that built out Labath Landing.
"I know a lot of people that lost their homes and had no place to go and with the devastation of losing their home, they also lost their job, some of them. They just couldn't make it to work, they lost their cars, they lost everything. It's not always the people who have given up, its people that have been through bad situations."
While convenient to pass the buck to county, state or federal officials, Rohnert Park Councilman Gerard Guidice said past efforts and methods have failed. 
"Our streets cannot be the waiting room for supportive housing. To those who say we're not doing anything about homelessness, I disagree. We are taking on and solving the toughest problem in Sonoma County right now."
Urton, with HomeFirst, one of the driving forces behind Labath, said large simply shelters don't work.
"Forty-four percent of the people living in sites that look like this, go to permanent housing. Only thirteen percent of the people living in congregate shelters go to permanent housing. That's a huge difference. Right now, the city of Rohnert Park has 369 unhoused individuals. We're going to take about 70 of them and put them here. So, your homelessness crisis is now 25 percent better."
One of those 70 is Brian Keim. An Idaho native, he travelled to Sonoma County to join his brother, but things went off the rails.
"And I fell into like some little pitholes (sic) or whatever you want to call it...I don't expect, but you know what I mean, about ten years now. And, I hate to say it but it's easy to be homeless here, you know what I mean? And that's because even when you don't have people giving you stuff and helping you, you could still get what you need without hurting nobody, you know what I mean?"
For Keim, that changed one day.
"They're like 'roll your stuff up man, because you're going over there,' y'know, and I was like uhh, I was pretty happy about that, because it's better than living in a tent city. They have everything I need to make it happen, if I want it to, whatever that is, y'know, so it's like I don't have to worry about how I'm going to wash my clothes, I don't have to worry about if I'm going to be able to take a shower for the next week or so, or how I'm going to wash myself or shave without people looking at me or whatever. I just like knowing that I can go in my room and close the door and lay down, you know what I mean? I really like that."
Life has also changed for Leonel Paniagua Robles, another resident, who no longer feels pitied, hated or invisible.
"Now, I feel more comfortable. They know me by my name, so it's, it makes you feel like home. There is heat here, there is showers, which we didn't have outside which is a lot of help."
After just two months in operation, it's too soon to declare Labath Landing a success. How well the site and services function and how much it lives up to the many promises, is of great interest in Rohnert Park and Sonoma County as a whole, and something KRCB-News will be following in detail.
  • SoCo Calendar
  • Right Now
  • Weather
  • Earthquakes
  • First News
thumbnail FirstNews logoA weekday early morning podcast that offers a first look at the top local news stories and weather forecast you need to start your day.

Sonoma County news stories featuring the latest in breaking news, county government, elections, environment, cultural happenings, and updates on your communities, from Petaluma to Cloverdale, and from Sonoma to Bodega Bay, and everyplace in between.

Subscribe to the Sonoma County First News podcast through our website, the NorCal Mobile App, NPR Podcasts, NPR One, iTunes/Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Read More

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.