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.