Night on Petaluma street highlights homelessness crisis

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Friday night was cold and damp, a brutal night to be sleeping out on the streets of Petaluma. But that is where several local business and government leaders spent the night, joining the hundreds of young homeless Sonoma County residents who spend every night out in the harsh conditions.

Scott Pritchard, a Petaluma resident and board chair of nonprofit Social Advocates for Youth, spent a restless night with a half dozen others outside of a business on 5th Street in downtown Petaluma. For Pritchard, hearing about the hardships homeless people go through is one thing, but actually experiencing it provides a whole new perspective.

“The experience was really humbling,” said Pritchard, who owns Transplant Transportation Services. “It allowed us an opportunity to imagine what youth go through every day. We had hours of discomfort. They do this every day.”

SAY advocates for the more than 500 homeless young people in Sonoma County. This was the second year it staged its One Cold Night event, which raised nearly $200,000, according to Shelby Harris, the group’s communications manager.

The event, which stated in Santa Rosa, expanded countywide for the first time this year, including the Petaluma location. Sleepers, which included county supervisors, participated in reflection sessions before and after sleeping on the street with just a sleeping bag and a tarp.

“The real goal is not only fundraising, but also to raise awareness of the ongoing crisis of youth homelessness,” Harris said. “We are trying to become more empathetic advocates.”

The group of sleepers in Petaluma raised $22,000 through sponsorships, Harris said.

Pritchard said it was a rough night with only about two hours of sleep. He said the cold, hard ground kept him up, as well as the sounds of late night Petaluma — bars closing, Uber drivers cruising streets, passersby chatting.

He said the main takeaways were how anonymous and vulnerable he and his group of well-off business leaders felt sleeping out on the street. He said he was fatigued the next day, but was able to sleep in his warm bed the next night, unlike homeless people who endure the elements night after night.

“I can imagine how your mental state starts to deteriorate from sheer exhaustion,” he said. “It opened my eyes. I walked away with more empathy.”

Leland Fishman, owner of Fishman Supply Co., and one of the Petaluma sleepers, said he could see how just a few nights on the streets without much sleep or a shower could lead to a perpetual downward spiral. He said he would participate again next year.

“It was a lot harder than I thought. It’s not like camping,” he said. “For those of us that did this, we did it because we recognize how fortunate we are that we don’t have to do this every night.”

Fishman, 62, said his back became stiff during the night on the hard ground. He said he only got about two to three hours of sleep and was up at 4 a.m.

The rest of the weekend, he traveled to San Diego for a conference and stayed at the luxurious Hotel del Coronado.

“The dichotomy was not lost on me,” he said.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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