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Homelessness widens in Sonoma County, along with efforts to help


GUERNEVILLE — As heavy rain from a late December storm drenched homeless encampments along the banks of the Russian River, Debra Johnson watched inhabitants scurry from their makeshift shelters in search of a dry place to wait out the deluge.

Often the only respite found here is under the rooftops of downtown businesses, an stopgap alternative that irks merchants and disturbs some visitors.

“Can you imagine sleeping out in this cold and rain? Not being able to rest or take a shower?” said Johnson, a longtime downtown business owner who runs Berkshire Hathaway Sonoma County Properties, a Russian River real estate company. “You come downtown and you can see we have a large homeless population, it’s challenging. It is very politically divisive issue.”

Guerneville is one of a number of Sonoma County communities that have struggled to address a widening problem of homelessness this year. The region’s dwindling supply of low-cost rental units and other persistent social woes, including health and addiction issues, continue to fuel the problem, with an estimated 3,000 county residents living day-to-day without shelter — about the same as in 2015, authorities say.

Most of those residents are congregating in places where they are more visible, including the two largest cities, Santa Rosa and Petaluma, and in places like Guerneville, along the Russian River, where homeless people have long sought refuge, though in recent years in apparently greater numbers.

Winter’s arrival has made the crisis even more evident, with scores of homeless residents now huddled under highway overpasses in Santa Rosa, adding to a dilemma that the city formally declared an “emergency” in August.

When homeless residents land in emergency rooms, jails or detox facilities, the cost to taxpayers soars, so local governments and nonprofits have over the past year dramatically reshaped their efforts to secure permanent housing and consistent safety net services for those who are most vulnerable.

The need continues to outstrip the capacity of available programs and services, even as local governments and nonprofit groups pour more money into long-term solutions. The county this year approved a record $13.4 million for its range of programs and services.

Nearly 34,000 people are on waiting lists for low-income housing vouchers. In Santa Rosa, that includes 4,515 people who wait an average of six to 10 years for rental assistance; the remaining applicants are on a list with the county, where the wait time averages four to six years.

A two-year-old outreach effort that seeks to target and enroll homeless people for housing and support services connected more than 230 people this year with permanent shelter.

Low-income housing projects are underway in Roseland, Sonoma Valley and Larkfield-Wikiup, and the county has qualified for additional state and federal funding for substance abuse and health care services.

“Permanent housing and outreach to place people into housing are our greatest priorities. You will alway be throwing good money after bad if you don’t provide the housing people need first,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, who leads the county’s homeless prevention efforts.

As part of its efforts, the county in February opened The Palms Inn, a former motel converted into 104 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people and homeless veterans. Funding has allowed for an expansion of the joint-safe parking program between Santa Rosa and the county, which allows homeless people to sleep overnight on church and government properties.

The county has also spearheaded a tiny homes project aimed at creating a homeless “veterans village” in Santa Rosa; boosted funding for long-term medical treatment; and approved a program for the nonprofit Social Advocates for Youth to conduct outreach to homeless youth in Sonoma Valley, a previously underserved area.

“It’s pretty incredible when you think about everything we’ve done,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the incoming chairwoman of the board. “I think what we’ve tried to do is focus on the urgency before us in terms of meeting the most basic needs. What we have to do now is find more places for people to live.”

Santa Rosa has allocated nearly $2 million to address homelessness. The funding has helped pay for a mobile shower trailer, add emergency shelter beds and expand the ranks of the homeless outreach team.

Those crews, teamed up with local law enforcement agencies, over the past year have cleared encampments along creeks, waterways and along the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit corridor to address public health issues with water quality and safety concerns with the new commuter train.

The effort has generated concern among downtown Santa Rosa businesses, but also helped Catholic Charities house more than 200 people, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

“The (outreach team) has totally revolutionized the way we provide services,” Holmes said. “We’re now able to connect with people and prioritize the most needy.”

In the latest tally, most homeless people reported a disabling health condition, substance abuse problem or mental illness.

It costs $31 a day to house a homeless person, while costs for other emergency intervention, absorbed largely by taxpayers, rise steadily. Residential substance abuse treatment is pegged at $76 per day; detox at $117 per day; jail at $139 per day and inpatient hospital stays $4,000 per day, according to the county.

Providing housing for all those needing shelter countywide — equating to about 2,200 new units — would cost about $110 million, according to county officials.

Johnson, who has helped spearhead the winter shelter program in Guerneville with some county money, says the town has learned lessons from its years of dealing with homelessness.

The town still lacks a year-round homeless shelter, as well as sufficient housing for those who qualify for placement. But community members and downtown merchants have not waited to act, instead launching programs that enlist the homeless population in short-term solutions.

“We all wanted homelessness gone, but that’s not realistic,” Johnson said. “So we started saying to them, ‘We’re all in this together, and we need your help.’”

The community began holding trash clean-ups along the river, and homeless people started to bag their garbage for collection, to prevent it from polluting the river’s ecosystem. Two west county nonprofits have stepped up with their own programs to secure aid for homeless people.

Residents and merchants, meanwhile, started making meals for those who sleep overnight at the homeless shelter, open December through March.

Some of the opposition in town to long-term housing for homeless residents has subsided, said Johnson, herself a former addict who was once homeless and slept in her car.

“We’re still establishing relationships and educating our homeless population about the importance of their participation in the community,” Johnson said. “We’re waiting for a service center. Once you have that, you have trust, and once you have trust you can create greater connections. Then there’s hope and once you have that, the sky’s the limit.”