Emergency expansion of Sonoma County homeless services
Published: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a $180,000 emergency fund on Tuesday to help at least some of the estimated 3,300 people without any shelter in the county make it through winter weather, though activists say that is just a fraction of what they need to combat the problem of homelessness.
The fund “is a wonderful drop in a very big bucket,” said Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless.
The package before the supervisors will allocate nearly $80,000 for temporary bed space and day shelters to get homeless people out of the cold weather through the end of March. That is in addition to more than $209,000 the county already pays to operate those services.
It also will add $75,000 to a program to offer “rapid rehousing,” money for newly homeless people to get back into homes, mostly in the form of assistance with deposits and other fees to get into rental housing, fees that very poor people have difficulty affording. That will nearly double the $76,590 the county already spends on such assistance.
“Expanding the shelter space is a short term effort,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “What we really want to do is provide what's called 'rapid relocation' . . . the longer someone is homeless, the harder it is to get them off the street.”
And the package will allocate $25,000 for a survey of homeless people in the county to identify who is most in need of assistance, a survey known as a “vulnerability index.” That will help with existing longer-term programs to find housing and social services for the chronically homeless who may be suffering from serious mental or physical illnesses, said Mark Krug, community development manager for the county Community Development Commission.
Counting how many homeless people there are in the county is difficult, since many are living out of sight, activists say, but a “homeless census” from January of 2013 counted nearly 4,300 homeless people in Sonoma County. About 70 percent, 3,300, of those had no shelter at all on that day.
The vast majority of the homeless people, 54 percent, lived in and around Santa Rosa and nearly 90 percent were permanent residents of Sonoma and nearby counties. About 11 percent were in family groups including children, and about 6 percent were children with no adult supervision.
The package before the supervisors will not provide long term solutions for most of those people, but it will protect public health by giving them more places to go to escape dangerously cold weather, Krug said.
Much of the money will go to Catholic Charities of the Santa Rosa Diocese, which operates overnight shelters in Santa Rosa and Guerneville and the temporary daytime warming center attached to the county Homeless Services Center, at 600 Morgan St. in Santa Rosa, during cold weather.
The nation's slow recovery from severe economic recession has made the system to help the homeless much less flexible, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. Many of the shelters are occupied by the working poor or recently unemployed, people who in better times would be able to afford their own homes or apartments.
That means when a crisis comes, such as the cold snap in early December that sent temperatures to near record lows, there is less space to house chronically homeless people looking to get warm.
A temporary expansion of shelter space is a good thing for saving lives, she said, but the more important long-term project is the “rapid rehousing” fund to help get those people affected by the bad economy out of the system as quickly as possible.
“They just need a little help with the security deposit or the first month and last month rent” to get back into a stable housing situation, she said.
Surveys of people in the Catholic Charities shelters suggest that at least a third of them and more than half of family groups fall into the category of people who just need some financial assistance to get back into housing, but would otherwise not be homeless, she said.
A number of other ideas are under discussion but will not be before the supervisors immediately. The Task Force for the Homeless, for example, is examining ways to coordinate among area churches to offer temporary sleeping space during particularly cold or wet periods when even the expanded shelters are full, Berland said.
The Task Force is also discussing with the county the possibility of opening public and private parking lots to allow the homeless to camp in their cars, a practice that is banned in public areas under a series of recent local ordinances. Berland said a controlled system of allowing people to sleep in their vehicles has been successful in other areas, including Santa Barbara and Venture counties.
“As soon as someone becomes homeless (in Sonoma County) and falls asleep, they become a criminal,” Berland said. “It is very tough on them.”
County staff examined the possibility of allowing such overnight sleeping in the lot of the sheriff's office in Santa Rosa, but did not recommend it to the supervisors because the sheriff's office is not open at night and would-be campers would not have access to restrooms or other facilities.
The county staff continues to consider the idea but “no viable locations or proposals have emerged, most typically due to lack of oversight capacity and because of public health and safety concerns for both homeless persons and others in the immediate area,” Krug wrote in his report to the supervisors.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.