County undertaking major review, overhaul of homeless services
MAY 15, 2021
Los Guilicos Transitional Village functioning, more shelters sought countywide
By Jay Gamel
Homelessness is a huge issue with multiple roots and seemingly endless demands on government and private resources. There are no simple solutions, no single way to cope with the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social damage caused when hundreds of thousands of people in America have no permanent residence or access to basic hygiene and shelter. And that’s just a best guesstimate by the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department from 2020. California has over 150,000 homeless people, and Sonoma County numbers hover just under 3,000. Given the nature of the problem, head counts are suspect and subject to who is visible when the counters come by.
Sonoma Valley has its unsheltered, too, however rural it is.
“We have homeless in the city of Sonoma, along all the creeks and under the bridges, both in Sonoma Valley and the City of Santa Rosa,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said at the April 20 virtual Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting, commenting on a major evaluation of county and Santa Rosa homeless services.
Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa agreed in 2019 to start a joint study of all homeless issues and programs, forming a special Renewal Enterprise District to potentially assume regional management of homeless programs, with a specified aim to look at increasing affordable housing — a perennial deficit in the county — and reducing homelessness. The rest of Sonoma County’s incorporated cities may join the special district they formed over the last two years, but for now, the two biggest players in the homeless and housing markets, Sonoma County and the Homeless – continued from page 1
City of Santa Rosa, are evaluating the future of these services.
Sonoma County hired international consulting firm KPMG last year to produce a big picture report on housing and homelessness in the county, looking at “all the programs, inventory services and programs designed to move homeless into homes, root out duplication of services and administration across all organizations to increase efficiency,” according to the contract. The initial report suggests that the county should “consolidate housing funding and expertise, leverage delivery capacity, and streamline offerings,” KPMG Managing Director, Government & Public Sector, Advisory Services, Bill Zizic told supervisors. The scope was to survey the “current state ecosystem of County housing and homeless services, current state organizational structure, roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, homeless and housing programs and services officered, and the operations of each department to understand the landscape of challenges and opportunities.”
The recommendations suggest much needs to be learned about communicating with an array of people left homeless due to a spectrum of reasons, ranging from basic economic distress to major mental illness and a dozen or more reasons in between. The immediate goal is to inventory all homeless-related programs for costs, effectiveness, and reliable data, Zizic said. “Some programs were not able to provide us information around cost, budget, capacity, or performance measures, and that can lead to problems identifying service overlaps or gaps.”
Jurisdictional disputes, boundaries, and follow-through are problem areas Zizic noted. Producing a more unified, regional approach encompassing both housing and homeless services could provide an environment where private investment may find it more comfortable to invest in these needed services and more efficient and effective to do them. Organizing and consolidating city and county homeless and housing programs will position both to receive more funding for services and programs from state, federal and private sources, Zizic said. North county supervisor James Gore summed it up: “We need to work together to deliver results that our community can see.”
An instant temporary homeless shelter was approved in January 2020 — over the objection Gorin — for the Los Guilicos County Center. It was designed to house 60 of the approximately 200 people displaced when the largest homeless camp in county history was disbanded. The camp had straddled the Joe Rodota Trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol for nearly a mile.
While still designated as “temporary,” Los Guilicos is the first of what may become several “transitional” shelters throughout the county, with supervisors from other districts actively looking for sites.
Two weeks after passing an emergency county ordinance, concrete was poured, trailers were connected, fire plans developed, a handbook produced, a shuttle bought, 23 employees hired (including four drivers), three town hall meetings were held, and legal paperwork was developed and processed.
The sixty “personal shelters” were assembled in 10 days, each 64 square feet with a locking door, bunk bed, heater, and shelves. They each took an hour to assemble and have held up for over a year, though four were destroyed by the 2020 Glass Fire which destroyed or damaged several other buildings as well at the county center on Pythian Road.
The four that were destroyed have been replaced, according to Jack Tibbetts, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul District Council of Sonoma County (Council), the organization contracted to operate the shelter. The Council provides homeless resources for Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties. They have worked with six-month contracts since the beginning. The latest contract has expired, but is expected to be renewed by the county soon, Tibbetts said.
The units are provided to people over 55, according to Tibbetts, who are the most vulnerable to cold and lack of heat — a factor not lost on the residents of nearby Oakmont, a community designed for and restricted to people over 55. “I think it is safe to say they are pretty pleased with how things are run,” Tibbetts said. “We meet with the Oakmont Advisory Council every month.” So far, there has been a single incident involving a homeless person returning from a hospital appointment who was dropped off on Highway. 12. The woman, who has dementia, became lost. Otherwise, there have been zero incidents with the population housed there, Tibbetts said.
“There was a lot of distress in the beginning when the county made a decision to drop (homeless people) across the street,” Susan Chauncy said. “But we’ve had no problems at all.” Chauncy is chair of the Los Guilicos Shelter Committee for the Oakmont Village Association, who attends those meetings with Tibbetts. “What we’ve found is that they are just people who, for whatever reason, have found themselves unhoused. Los Guilicos is a prototype model and people come from all over the country and the West Coast to see what’s happening.” While there are 60 units, two have been kept vacant for potential COVID isolation, which has not happened. As of April of this year, 168 people have been placed at Los Guilicos and St. Vincent de Paul, and 55 people have been permanently housed. There are currently 58 people onsite, with 34 people seeking active recovery from dependency on one or more substances.
While long-term, permanent housing is the goal and the “gold standard,” a presentation created by St. Vincent de Paul for supervisor James Gore and his district’s city managers concluded, “These indoor/ outdoor shelters are a crucial KEY for government and unlocks their ability to move people out of bad situations that negatively impact neighborhoods and into a safer, less harmful environment.”
The newest project at Los Guilicos is obtaining county permission to bring in goats to graze the surrounding high grass meadows, reducing fire hazard and keeping occupants busy tending them.