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Homeless forum expects better days ahead

Funding resources becoming available

By Chris Rooney

“We’re in a good position this year,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, “because our governor and legislature recognize that homelessness is endemic.”

Gorin was kicking off an Oct. 27 virtual forum on homelessness on a high note, pointing out that new funding resources and some solid planning just might help thwart an upward tick in homelessness statistics.

The forum (“Ending Homelessness in Sonoma Valley”) included a who’s who of governmental departments, nonprofit agencies, and advocates all offering their insights into how homelessness has impacted Sonoma Valley and what is being done to remedy the situation.

Gorin, one of the forum facilitators, said Project Homekey was pivotal in tackling homelessness. Project Homekey is a statewide program that helps cities and counties secure funding to convert hotels and motels into housing for the homeless, as well as bolster the construction of new housing and shelters.

“Project Homekey is, to me, a real game changer,” said David Kiff of the county’s Community Development Commission.

However, tackling homelessness is a complex endeavor. Several of the forum participants said homeless data was seldom accurate, as many people denied being homeless and there are various means and definitions of being without a home.

Kiff said he tracked one family and 24 individuals (including two youths) in Sonoma Valley who were experiencing homelessness. Of those, 92 percent were already living on the street or in a shelter and 8 percent were right out of their home or vulnerable to losing their home. He said 80 percent were white, 12 percent Native American or Indigenous, and 8 percent Black. However, his data source placed the Latino community into the white category.

An index is used to rate the level of vulnerability of a person experiencing homelessness, Kiff explained. On a rating from one to 14, he said 11 of the individuals rated seven or below, meaning they had a better likelihood of reintegrating back into society. Thirteen cases scored above an eight, meaning they would likely need support services as well as homes. And there were two cases that scored 13 or 14, meaning they most likely have serious mental or drug-related issues that tend to result in life on the street.

Kathy King, Sonoma Overnight Support’s (SOS) executive director, drew upon her heavy statistical base to depict just who the regional homeless are. Her program provides meals and services to a wide range of those in need, not necessarily just the homeless. She said about 25 percent of those who replied to questions said they were homeless, but 37 percent did not, something King attributed to being “too embarrassed.”

The sweeping majority of her agency’s clients were between 26 and 55 years of age; two-thirds were white; 70 percent were male; 84 percent were unemployed; and 93 percent of the 169 served were from the Sonoma Valley.

Exposing one of the difficulties in tackling the homeless issue, King said just 47 percent of those questioned were interested in shelters, while 43 percent either wanted nothing to do with shelters or stayed briefly and quickly left. She said some respondents didn’t like the rules often attached to shelter life.

Cheryl Johnson of the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center echoed some of King’s findings. She said some of the homeless facts and figures don’t reflect reality because “there is a reluctance to self-identify” as homeless by many people. She also said that, in some in- stances, dozens of people live in one home, but many of those people would likely be homeless without families letting their households grow exponentially.

The panel went on to address one of the more controversial aspects of homelessness — encampments.

Richard Dale of the Sonoma Ecology Center was asked about the Montini Open Space Preserve, where many camps popped up. “There were a dozen or more camps in the last year,” Dale said. “We tend to look the other way.”

However, a series of fires brought attention to homeless camps, and a decision to close the preserve to camping was made. “Everyone decided to leave,” Dale said, adding that both the homeless and neighboring communities were in danger.

Larson Park was cited as another spot where individuals experiencing homelessness set up encampments.

As for planned housing projects, the LG Village was touted as a success story. Formerly the Los Guilicos juvenile detention facility, LG Village is located on Highway 12 at Pythian Road — not too far east of the Oakmont retirement community and north of the Kenwood village.

Tina Rivera of the county Department of Health Services said LG Village was a “successful model for other California counties.”

A forum attendee asked if LG Village could be expanded, but it was explained that its maximum occupancy of 60 people had been met. Sixteen of LG Village’s residents are from Sonoma Valley.

LG Village wasn’t without controversy. The occupants complained it was too remote from other services and that bus routes were paltry. Neighbors complained about feces, litter, drugs, noise, and crime.

The panel agreed that time is of the essence, as rates of homelessness have risen thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating housing costs.

King said her SOS program served fewer than 18,000 meals in 2019, but more than 37,000 in 2020, and will serve more than 50,000 meals by the end of this year.

Complicating matters are bureaucracy and technology advances. “The system is way too complicated and needs to be streamlined,” said Johnson.

Annie Falandes of Homeless Action Sonoma (HAS) added that many programs rely on computer access and ability. She said seniors were often left behind and many “homeless just give up” trying to qualify for support. “They’re being left out,” she said.

For city of Sonoma Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti, the cause was personal. “I was homeless as a child,” she said, adding she remembered the stigma attached to being a poor family. “We’re all human beings. We all need to educate ourselves.”

The forum concluded on a positive note, as Kiff said, “You can expect more housing. That’s a great thing.” Falandes said, “We have big plans,” and Agrimonti said Sonoma Valley should once again partner with Petaluma to secure housing for Sonoma Valley residents in need.

One virtual attendee’s comment was a blunt eye-opener. “Daniel” said how hard it is to find work and a means to live while dealing with his circumstances. “Being homeless is exhausting,” he said.