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Sonoma’s homeless count shows increase in unsheltered

Early release of “census” shows homelessness is on the rise in Sonoma County — but it’s not quite as bad as you may have thought
Sonoma’s homeless count shows increase in unsheltered
Shelters for people experiencing homelessness at Los Guillicos.Photo by Jay Gamel

 

By Christian Kallen

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC) released preliminary results of the Point In Time (PIT) annual count of people without a permanent residence, also known as the Homeless Census, on May 16. Though final tabulations of more specific demographic information are expected later this summer, the press release claimed some success in the lessthan- expected increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness over the course of the pandemic — but less than expected is still an increase.

The last PIT count in Sonoma was in late February 2020, taking place just weeks before the shelter-in-place orders of the COVID-19 pandemic were imposed. That year showed 2,745 persons experiencing homelessness; the figures for 2022 show a 5 percent increase, to 2,893 individuals. The county tried to put the best spin on the increase by saying in its press release, “In 2011, the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the county was 4,539. Since then there has been a steady decline over the past decade.

“The PIT Count is based on visual observations of individuals and groups who are unsheltered, as well as a census of people in shelters, and as a result, only provides a snapshot of homelessness during a single point in time,” states the May 16 press release. “It is a valuable count, but it may not adequately reflect the total number of people experiencing homelessness throughout the year.” The survey took place on Feb. 25 of this year.

The increase, while concerning, was less than anticipated in the wake of the disruptive pandemic, and the county’s information was coordinated with a regional press release from nine Bay Area counties “in recognition of the regional nature of this issue” and to provide context.

The combined release points out, “Each county is releasing [its] numbers individually, but it’s important to put local data in a regional context. The root causes of homelessness — structural racism, income inequality, and a lack of affordable housing for extremely lowincome households — cross city and county borders. So to Bay Area residents, solutions must be in place across the region to be effective.”

In particular, the county CDC cited the statefunded Homekey program, which has approved five housing sites for people experiencing homelessness, of which only two are in use: Mickey Zane Place in Santa Rosa (formerly Hotel Azura) and Elderberry Commons in Sebastopol (formerly Sebastopol Inn).

Sonoma County “was able to stave off a predicted catastrophic increase in homelessness over the last three years during COVID,” read the statement from CDC program manager Michael Gauss. The CDC acknowledged a $2 million grant from the Board of Supervisors for safe parking and interim housing opportunities, as well as nearly $40 million in state and federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds, all of which helped dull the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

A Sonoma Valley organization, Homeless Action Sonoma (HAS), has plans for 22 temporary shelters, as well as a permanent building, on its Sonoma Highway property near the Donald Street bridge. The HAS application is under county review, though it was recommended for approval last month by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission.

Gauss, the program manager of the CDC’s Continuum of Care office, said, “We won’t have the full report until July, so we can’t draw any conclusions yet.” The full report will exceed 100 pages and include more detailed population numbers and responses to the homeless survey, offering deeper insights into the situations leading to homelessness.

Gauss pointed out one notable aspect of the coming full report: The overall number of unsheltered went up significantly, to 2,088, while only 805 were “sheltered” in various safe parking or temporary housing facilities, such as the Los Guilicos County Center complex shelter on Pythian Road near Oakmont, where 60 persons are lodged in one-room prefab homes.

He thought the increase in unsheltered homeless was because the PIT census this year took place in late February, when the county was in the midst of the omicron surge. Sonoma County has a tradition of conducting the PIT count annually, although they are only required to do so every two years.

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