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In wake of fires, homeless population swells in Sonoma County

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October’s devastating wildfires helped swell Sonoma County’s homeless population for the first time since 2011, raising the count by 6 percent, or 161 people, according to the annual point-in-time census released Friday.

The Feb. 23 street-level survey found a total of 2,996 people experiencing homelessness around the county, compared with 2,835 a year earlier — before the North Bay fires destroyed nearly 5,300 homes countywide.

Five percent of the people contacted reported that fires were the primary cause of their homelessness.

County service providers fear those individuals are merely the first wave in a dramatically increasing rate of homelessness due to fire-related losses, as people of varying means exhaust their financial and social resources in the firestorm’s wake.

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission, whose mission includes promoting safe, affordable housing, will ask county supervisors on Tuesday to declare a homeless state of emergency based on the dire forecast, said Felicity Gasser, the commission’s policy and community liaison.

That step would enable the county to apply for state and federal homeless emergency aid, she said.

“We didn’t see that immediate move of people into shelters or out onto the streets (after the fires), but four months after, we did,” Gasser said. “We are really anticipating that it will continue. We believe that people will be using up their resources, that that wave is going to continue for the next 24 months.”

Gasser and Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s largest homeless services provider, said their expectations are based in large part on fallout in the region from the 2008 economic recession and housing crisis that swept the nation.

Many of those in Sonoma County who were affected held their own for a period of time, until they spent their savings and used up whatever options for temporary shelter they may have had, the homeless advocates said.

“The cycle that typically happens is they’re couch-surfing, staying with family and friends, and eventually that’s not sustainable,” Holmes said.

“And that’s when we see people entering homelessness for the first time, and that was very much what happened with the 2008 financial crisis.”

Already, the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time was up from 24  percent last year to 35  percent in the 2018 census.

But Gasser said her department expects the uptick to come faster and more dramatically than during the recession, as public officials, service providers and residents already are wrestling with what seems to be an intractable problem: A substantial unhoused population, many of whom have serious, unaddressed health and substance-abuse challenges and nowhere to sleep or store their belongings.

The 100-page homeless census report will be presented Tuesday to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, along with strategies proposed for addressing what the Community Development Commission calls a “forecasted homeless emergency.”

The county is required to conduct an annual point-in-time census to qualify for $3.4  million in homeless services funding provided through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the census also provides some measure of the impact of local homeless services, though the fires are considered a complicating factor this year.

The first count in 2009 revealed a total of 3,247 people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County, with a peak number of 4,539 in 2011. It has been conducted in recent years by Applied Survey Research, which has sought to improve its methods each year, in part by utilizing guides who have experienced homelessness to help census-takers know where to look for people sleeping outside.

Knowledgeable outreach and service providers also contribute.

Days after the field count, surveyors interviewed a representative number of homeless individuals to profile the community and establish demographic details of the overall population.

For the first time this year, Applied Survey Research also conducted telephone interviews with 1,191 randomly selected Sonoma County residents to determine what impact the October firestorm may have had on the local housing situation.

Those interviews revealed that about 4 percent of the county population, or 21,482 people, were temporarily or precariously housed in February and considered vulnerable to becoming homeless — about half because of the fires.

An estimated 8,358 county residents were couch-surfing or doubled up in housing after losing their own homes to the fires, according to the survey.

Another 2,430 people were displaced because of post-fire economic factors, including rising rents or because their landlords needed to reclaim homes they had previously rented out, the report said.

Moreover, 63 percent of those directly displaced by fire reported they were not connected to housing assistance, according to the phone survey results.

“That shows me we still have a lot of work to do to help people affected by the fires connect to the resources they need,” Holmes said.

Another point of concern, officials said, are findings that indicated older residents were much harder hit by the fires than those in younger generations.

Assuming many of them are on fixed incomes, they could struggle more than their younger counterparts to find housing again, given increasingly high housing costs around the county.

Among those precariously housed specifically because of fires, 43  percent were aged 55 or older, compared to 22  percent of those in jeopardy of losing their homes for other reasons.

“People who are unstably housed after the fires are those who didn’t have access to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) resources or temporary housing,” Gasser said.

“This means that the seniors who are facing housing instability due to the fires are those who have limited social and financial resources and who are vulnerable to becoming homeless.”

Additional findings in the report include a 25  percent increase in the number of chronically homeless individuals, from 598 to 747, over the previous year after a steady five-year decline.

About 85 percent of them were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping outside or in tents, motor vehicles or other places not intended for human habitation.

Chronically homeless individuals are those who have been homeless for at least year or have had four episodes of homelessness totaling at least 12  months in the past three years, and also have a disability that prevents them from maintaining a job or housing.

Out of the total homeless number, 64  percent, or 1,929 individuals, were classified unsheltered, a 4 percent increase from the previous year.

Thirty-six percent of the overall total were residing in temporary shelter, including emergency shelters or transitional housing, an 8  percent improvement from 2017.

The one-day count noted a 27  percent increase in the number of homeless individuals in north Sonoma County, particularly in Cloverdale, where 80 people were counted this year, compared with 32 last year.

In Windsor, 75 homeless people were found, compared to 46 a year earlier. Healdsburg’s count was 129, compared with 111 in 2017. The unincorporated area showed a decline of 20 people.

Gasser attributed the changes to the participation of homeless service providers in the field census, improving accuracy due to their knowledge of where they would be likely to find homeless people.

Rohnert Park experienced a substantial rise, as well, with 138 homeless people counted this year, compared to 84 a year earlier, an increase of 64  percent.

The number of homeless in west Sonoma County fell from 319 to 283 people, particularly notable in unincorporated areas.

Gasser said the shift likely reflected increased focus on housing and services for homeless people along the Russian River and elsewhere.