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Homeless numbers up in county, but ‘functional zero’ seems attainable

Homeless numbers up in county, but ‘functional zero’ seems attainable
The Los Guilicos Village off of Sonoma Highway near Oakmont. Los Guilicos has served over 220 people since the 60-bed “non-congregate shelter site” opened in January 2020.Photo by Jay Gamel

By Christian Kallen

Although Sonoma County’s Community Development Commission (CDC), which is responsible for homeless services in the county, has not yet released its full annual “point-in-time” census of housing-challenged residents, it did tease the results at a Board of Supervisors meeting in July.

The headline: People experiencing homelessness increased by about 5 percent in the past two years — years marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, fire evacuations, and other stressors. That doesn’t sound too bad, given what county residents have been going through. But there are some details in the fine print that are less encouraging.

“Preliminary results from our 2022 Point in Time (PIT) Count showed that 2,893 persons experienced homelessness on one night (February 25, 2022) in wintertime,” stated the Homelessness Update presented by Tina Rivera, the county’s health services director, and Dave Kiff, the interim director of the county CDC. “This was up by 5% (from 2,745 persons) since the last PIT Count in 2020 (the 2021 count was not completed due to the COVID pandemic).”

While that number remains below the 3,097 people counted in 2015, the first year of the PIT census in Sonoma County, it’s still a long way from what the Sonoma County Continuum of Care (CoC) and its partners have stated as their goal of reaching “Functional Zero (FZ) in homelessness, where homelessness is brief, rare, and one-time.”

But, in the fine print, we find a more significant climb in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness in specific groups: a 29 percent increase in “chronic homelessness” that disproportionally affects people living with disabilities; an increase of 37 percent among veterans; and a 68 percent increase in youth 24 years and younger.

Only a strong 40 percent reduction among families now found in sheltered settings offset those numbers, according to the Homelessness Update presented to the board on July 12. More specific demographic and geographical information, including the numbers of housingchallenged in Sonoma Valley, is expected in the final report to be issued in the next few weeks.

Kiff, the interim director of the CDC (and the former interim city manager of Sonoma), pushed the possibility of attaining Functional Zero, which a handful of communities in the nation have done (including, in California, Bakersfield/Kern County).

“It is challenging to attain; it takes a regional commitment,” Kiff said. “It will take enough system capacity and flow, which is really challenging. We know it’s going to take housing — housing is the solution.”

Rivera added her voice to the argument. “We believe we’re at a point where we can not only see it as a dream, but view it as a realization here in Sonoma County.”

Los Guilicos

At stake in the conversation was $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that the county has pledged to homeless services. A significant portion of that was requested to support Saint Vincent de Paul, which operates Los Guilicos Village near Oakmont, as well as a number of trailers at the county fairgrounds, and to prepare a Request for Proposasl (RFP) for future improvements at Los Guilicos, in part because Saint Vincent de Paul was appointed manager of Los Guilicos in an emergency situation after people were forced to leave a camp on Santa Rosa’s Joe Rodota Trail early in 2020. Los Guilicos Village never went through the usual county selection process.

In real numbers, Los Guilicos has served over 220 people since the 60-bed “non-congregate shelter site” opened in January 2020. Though it was originally intended to be a short-term solution to the crisis on the Joe Rodota Trail, the facility just up Pythian Road from Oakmont has proven a crucial component in the county’s continuum of care.

The CDC’s figures show that 28 percent of Los Guilicos “clients” have found permanent housing, 59 percent have gone to temporary destinations (such as hotels, motels, or staying with friends or family), and 3 percent have gone to institutional destinations such as hospitals, jails, and detox facilities.

The cost to operate the village is about $2.2 million annually, “which equates to about $100 per person per day,” according to a staff report presented to the supervisors. By applying funds from a mix of sources, including federal, state, and local dollars, the county supervisors were able to fund Los Guilicos for the coming fiscal year.

In response to Supervisor David Rabbitt’s questions about the effi- ciency of homeless villages like Los Guilicos, Kiff responded, “Let me just say, they are all full. They are very popular places to be. It’s a place where you can often keep a pet, keep your belongings secure, and have a private place.”

“Non-congregate sheltering or even seminon- congregate sheltering is truly the gold standard” in homeless care response, said Rivera. “So that is the shift we are seeing in this area with respect to homelessness.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin challenged the county’s homeless support task force to consider Sonoma Valley part of Sonoma County and find county-wise solutions, not solutions preferential to the Santa Rosa area. Referencing the City of Sonoma’s Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), which at present is focused on providing hundreds of meals daily for the homeless and the hungry, Gorin said, “SOS is the only service provider in the valley, focused on feeding an enormous crowd of folks each day.” The agency conducts surveys of the people they serve, and according to Gorin, “their surveys show people want to stay in the area,” rather than going to Petaluma, Santa Rosa, or elsewhere.

Aside from Los Guilicos, which is technically in Santa Rosa, the only other opportunity for the housing-challenged to find a home in Sonoma Valley is through Homeless Action Sonoma, which proposes 33 permanent support housing beds at a to-be-built facility at 1821 Sonoma Highway. Homeless Action Sonoma was started by Annie Falandes just last year as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Despite community support and county enthusiasm, the facility is still mired in the permitting phase of its development. But its promise of permanent housing for 33 people figures prominently in the county’s plans for moving people off the streets, out from under bridges, and into some semblance of housing normalcy.

As officials in the state Department of Health Care Services are wont to say, “the solution to homelessness is housing,” a seemingly obvious, yet difficult-to-attain, goal of the “housing first” model of homeless support services.