Posted: July 17, 2019
The latest “Point In Time” homeless count in Sonoma County shows the number of people without permanent shelter remains about the same in 2019 as last year — a surprise given the pressures on rents and housing that continue in the wake of the 2017 fire disaster.
Despite this less-bad-news-is-good-news scenario, homelessness remains at crisis levels in our community. Almost 3,000 people — young people, old people, disabled people, families, veterans and those with mental health issues — live without homes in Sonoma County. In a place of such bounty and goodwill, this is unacceptable.
Homelessness has been a top priority for Sonoma County and its cities for several years. Recently, those efforts have achieved some success; the annual count has decreased from a high of 4,539 individuals in 2011 to 2,951 this year.
But while total numbers have decreased, the needs and the visibility of our homeless population have increased as the demographics have changed over time. You can review the report’s demographic statistics from the executive summary here.
Today, the largest single group, 675 individuals, are characterized as “chronically homeless” and 80 percent of them are unsheltered. These are generally people with some kind of disability who have been homeless for at least a year. The second-largest group is young people between 18 and 24, totaling 549 individuals, 93 percent of whom are unsheltered. At opposite ends of the age spectrum are 117 unaccompanied children age 17 or younger — nearly every one of them without shelter — and 455 adults older than 55, with about 62 percent of them unsheltered.
These amount to serious challenges for local government, indicating a need for sweeping changes in homeless policy. But neither the challenges nor the changes are necessarily new.
In December 2016, coinciding with the beginning of my term as mayor of Santa Rosa, the issue of homelessness took a more dramatic turn in Sonoma County. Rain came in torrents, signaling what would become an end to years of drought in California. And several homeless encampments, which for years had been hidden away beside creeks and in wooded areas and along the long-dormant SMART right-of-way, moved to more visible locales. The largest and most noticeable formed under the Highway 101 freeway crossings of Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets in downtown Santa Rosa.
Earlier that year, the city had declared a “homeless emergency” in Santa Rosa. It allowed changes to certain city regulations, including permitting individuals and private groups to set up accommodations and services for homeless people on private property and within private facilities. The first significant effort to set up a “homeless village” on church property in Southwest Santa Rosa was met by vigorous opposition from neighbors. The church group eventually abandoned the plan.
The City Council doubled and eventually tripled the funding devoted to homeless services in Santa Rosa, increasing the capacity of our primary homeless shelter and adding an array of outreach and supportive services available to help people find a way off of the streets and into not just shelter, but homes. This coincided with the forced closing of illegal encampments, which posed serious health and safety problems for their residents, environmental damage and neighborhood issues that prompted a significant outcry from residents.
Meanwhile, a number of homeless individuals who were living in encampments, such as a wooded hillside at the south end of Farmers Lane or under the freeway overpasses, were declining offers of shelter at Sam Jones Hall, the county’s largest homeless facility, which had been expanded to meet growing demand. As large, disruptive and visible camps were closed, other encampments spread or grew in existing locations such as Roseland, Doyle Park, the west county along the Russian River and elsewhere.
It was time to make deeper changes to our approach to the homeless issue.
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County in 2017 had jointly contracted for a thorough study of the widely scattered public and private homeless services system in our community. The report identified “a fragmented network of decision-making” and a “lack of clear vision” in dealing with the problem. It identified “duplication of efforts and a lack of coordination among the whole system of care… that entrenches the existing view that each region of the county needs a different approach to ending homelessness.”
The report touched off an extensive city-county effort to realign homeless services throughout Sonoma County. After a delay caused by the October fires, the City Council and county Board of Supervisors in November 2017 appointed a joint subcommittee of elected officials to work with city and county staff, non-profits, homeless advocates and other stakeholders to create what came to be known as the Home Sonoma County Leadership Council. This nine-member public-private partnership now serves as the single decision-making body for homeless policy and funding in Sonoma County.
It is specifically designed to change the way we address homelessness in Sonoma County. And this spring, it did. With an infusion of $12 million from the state, the newly formed agency awarded a total of $14 million to projects that include repairs to existing facilities, support for mental health services, street outreach, potential sanctioned encampments and both supportive and independent housing options. The programs and projects supported by this money include efforts in Rohnert Park, Sonoma Valley, the Russian River and every community in the county.
All of this is needed, and more. When people ask me what can be done to “solve” homelessness, I mention the creation of Home Sonoma County and the infusion of state money as positive moves toward that goal.
But the state money is only available now, with no guarantee for the future. The programs and projects it supports will be needed for years to come as we move toward the goal of eliminating homelessness in our community.
Today, affordable housing is elusive in Sonoma County even for middle-class employed individuals and families. That makes it extremely difficult to identify a home for every one of the nearly 3,000 homeless people in our midst, at least in the short term.
So we need to keep working on creative responses to homelessness right now.
Home Sonoma County’s first allocation of funding led to several new initiatives, and will bolster others that were underway, including several “rapid rehousing” programs that provide help for people to find and fund their way back into housing. Additionally, funding was approved to support the conversion of a second Santa Rosa motel into a single-room-occupancy facility that will include not just housing but supportive services to help individuals transition out of homelessness. And a group that has aggressively advocated for sanctioned homeless encampments received funding for a pilot project that has yet to be determined.
More recently, several local projects also received funding from the state’s “No Place Like Home” program. This will bring closer to reality a large Catholic Charities effort to transform its family shelter in the old Santa Rosa General Hospital into downtown housing and a service hub for homeless individuals. It also boosts the prospect for another homeless-housing project on College Avenue.
These are positive developments toward reducing homelessness in Sonoma County, but more will be needed. Homelessness is a problem that has its roots in the national and even global economy, in the statewide housing crisis, in our health care system’s failure to adequately address mental health needs and in our society’s growing opioid epidemic. Local government mostly deals with the symptoms, not the causes of this problem.
Still, we can and will do more. The realignment of homeless services under Home Sonoma County is good, but it could be better if Sonoma County’s departments of Public Health and Behavioral Health were as invested in this effort as the county’s housing department.
Creating housing that is affordable to all is critical, but we need a truly comprehensive, community-wide effort to end homelessness. That includes lobbying at the state and federal levels for affordable health care and more accessible mental health care than currently exists in Sonoma County. It means addressing the very real impacts of the opioid epidemic that each day reach further into our community. It means providing a safety net of social and human services for many homeless individuals who are not immediately able to live independently. It requires jobs that pay wages high enough to keep working people economically safe in the homes they have now.
The number of people without a safe and affordable place to live in our community is dropping, but not quickly enough. Let’s do everything we can to help our neighbors get off the streets.