29% surge in number of homeless youth in Sonoma County

A substantial surge in young people counted during this year’s annual census of homeless individuals in Sonoma County is raising troubling questions about how better to serve vulnerable youth living on the streets, officials and advocates said Thursday.

A total of 660 people younger than age 24 - some as young as 12 - were living mostly without any kind of shelter, a 29% spike over last year, according to figures released this week.

The increase in homeless youth “deserves the underline and the exclamation point” from this year’s head count, said Katrina Thurman, chief executive officer for Social Advocates for Youth, which provides housing, counseling, job and educational support for young people.

Social service providers say they’re otherwise heartened, and surprised, to see the overall number of those experiencing homelessness decline slightly over the past year, despite a continued housing crunch exacerbated by the 2017 wildfires.

The point-in-time census, conducted Jan. 25, estimated a total of 2,951 people experiencing homelessness around the county - down 2% from a year earlier and well below the peak of 4,539 in 2011.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm described it as “a little ray of hope.”

Part of the explanation for this year’s downward trend, officials said, may be a mass exodus of residents in the year after the fire and, thus, reduced pressure on the local housing market. The U.S. Department of Finance in December estimated 3,300 people had left fled fled Sonoma County in the previous year.

But it’s more complicated than that, said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. She said the community’s ability “to hold the line” on homelessness also reflected ongoing, strategic investments in programs that transition people into permanent housing, targeting specific groups like those who are chronically homeless and need major interventions to address personal problems.

“There were really quite big shifts toward ‘housing first’ (initiatives) just in the last year,” Van Vliet said, “and that means we have been getting chronically homeless being housed, off the street, in a way that’s been making a dent in that population.”

The number of chronically homeless dropped 10% last year, from 7?47 individuals in 2018 to 675 this year, according to the new report. The federal government defines chronically homeless as those with at least one disabling condition who have been homeless for a year or longer, or, for at least four episodes totaling 12 months in the last three years.

“These are the people who are very visible in our community,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities, the largest contract provider of shelter and services for the homeless in Sonoma County. “These are typically the individuals who are often interacting with our public safety branches,” or whose other community costs, like emergency response and medical needs, are high.

It’s also “the most challenging population to try to house,” Schwedhelm said.

But this subgroup still accounts for 23% of those experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County. Of that, 80% are in some kind of emergency shelter or temporary shelter, at least, the report says.

Another major subpopulation consists of those under age 25 - 666 of them living on their own, some quite young, though most are in the “transition-age” range of 18 to 24.

They include 117 unaccompanied children up to age 17, nearly all unsheltered, according to the census report. Last year’s count of underage youths, at 34, was a mere fraction by comparison.

Another 549 transition-age youth were counted this year, including 93% who were unsheltered. As a rule, they tend not to have the experience or knowledge to find services that might help, Thurman said. They also feel the stigma and fear of homelessness quite heavily, so they may be harder than adults for outreach workers to find.

The result is they are unprotected and especially vulnerable.

“You know, as a community, if we were just to think about, ‘what’s the life experience that’s happening to each one of those young people as it get dark every night,’ it’s really worth our attention and understanding the factors, and then going to work on understanding what we can do about it,” Thurman said.

Even those into their 20s often lack a credit or a rental history that makes it possible to rent an apartment or house, Thurman and others said. As a result, they’re the first to be squeezed out in a competitive rental market.

Many find themselves on the streets when a friend or family member who previously allowed them to stay on a couch or in a spare room had to downsize because of due to due to rising rental prices - a story Thurman and other social service providers said they had heard time and again.

About 1 in 5 surveyed as part of the homeless count had been in foster care, so they lacked the kind of support kids from intact families would have.

And with data indicating that half of those were homeless for the first time under the age of 25, the rising number of those in that age group “becomes this predictive factor,” Thurman said.

“To me, it’s like the call to action,” she said. “If we continue as a community to let people become homeless in this very vulnerable time in their life, the consequence to that community is just more homelessness.”

This year’s report arrives as Home Sonoma County, the countywide system of care governed by representatives from the county and all nine local municipalities, deploys more than $14 million in one-time funding awarded earlier this year that Schwedhelm hopes will be reflected in next year’s numbers.

He noted the number of older adults living on the streets increased 11% this year, when 455 were counted. Older adults are defined as those over age 55, a group that would likely have higher mortality rates than the general population as a result of due to due to unmet mental and physical health needs, as well as substance abuse issues, according to the report. Men outnumber women in this group by about 2 to 1.

The report also said that 29% of those counted were living in vehicles, including recreational vehicles, which have proliferated in neighborhoods since the 2017 fires, which destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, including 5% of Santa Rosa’s housing stock.

The fires were blamed for a 6% increase in the homeless population last year, to 2,996 - the first increase since 2011. Many providers expected another rise this year, due in part to a related phone survey of more than ?21,000 individuals described as “precariously housed,” including 39% who reported losing homes to the fires.

A similar survey found 21,725 people at risk of homelessness and in temporary housing this year, 26% of whom lost homes in the fires. Another 26% reported losing housing due to economic impacts from the fires, according to the report.

Holmes, of Catholic Charities, said she was “happy to be wrong” about a second consecutive increase in the overall population, but also “wished we moved the needle a little more.”

But looking at other Bay Area counties with double-digit increases - Santa Clara County, 31%, San Francisco County, 17%, Alameda County, 43% - a 2% reduction “is quite promising,” she said.

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