Who are our homeless in Sonoma County and what are the county’s next steps?
By Susan Gorin, First District Supervisor
Homelessness is one of the most contentious and difficult challenges the county has faced. That said, along with fear and concern, there is also compassion and advocacy. There’s a lot of information and misinformation I’d like to try and sort through. Despite that we may be “seeing” more homeless, data shows homeless numbers have actually decreased over the years. Our last homeless count in 2019 demonstrated more than 85 percent of our homeless population was originally from Sonoma County.
The investments made by the County and cities over the years have made a difference. The Home Sonoma County Leadership Council has allocated close to $20 million in homeless outreach services, expansions of shelters and permanent supportive housing and emergency winter shelters.
Our next homeless count took place Feb. 28. Since tabulating the data and releasing it takes a few months, we can expect to see a report out sometime in late spring. I don’t pretend to know what this data will look like, but I am glad we will have current information and be able to have discussions based on facts, not rumors.
Homeless Services in Sonoma ValleySonoma Overnight Support (SOS) in Sonoma provides homeless services at a small shelter adjacent to the Police Station; SOS operates on a shoestring budget with the help of volunteers and community members and the City of Sonoma contributing funding. The County provides funding for the emergency winter shelter December-March.
After a horrific sexual assault on the Sonoma Bike Path by a former SOS client, a special Sonoma City Council meeting was held Feb. 11 to discuss safety concerns and ways forward. The Sonoma City Council will continue discussing next steps for SOS and the overnight and day services, and safe parking program it offers. Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey has asked me to join a task force to study potential relocation and small expansion of the shelter, and I am exploring locations for safe parking in Sonoma Valley, as well.
Homeless Services in Santa RosaThere are a number of service providers offering outreach services, shelters, permanent supportive housing and transitional housing in Santa Rosa – Catholic Charities, The Living Room, Redwood Gospel Mission, St. Vincent de Paul and the City of Santa Rosa (at Sam Jones Hall). The County has invested millions in supporting these services, and collectively all have made a difference; hundreds of homeless individuals have been successfully reintegrated into the community, and our homeless numbers have declined year after year.
What has changed recently? A number of homeless encampments were cleared in Santa Rosa, leading to homeless individuals rapidly forming encampments along the Joe Rodota Trail in great numbers over the past nine months, posing an increasing health and public safety crisis to those along the cycling and pedestrian trail, and its neighbors.
Health and safety conditions along the trail deteriorated so quickly, it became a homeless emergency almost overnight. In December, I and the other supervisors, as well as county staff, agreed the time had come to clear the trail. But we needed to abide by the negotiated settlement with the courts as a result of the lawsuit Homeless Action brought against Santa Rosa, the County and the SR Police Department. We cannot simply arrest people for being homeless, or dispose of their belongings. We are required to offer a range of accommodations specific to the needs of the population and storage space for their personal property. That meant that we needed to stand up an emergency shelter very rapidly.
Pallet Shelters were ordered, delivered and ready to stand up, as soon as the decision was made by the Board of Supervisors on the location of the “temporary” emergency outdoor shelter. At the Jan. 14 meeting, the Board of Supervisors firmly agreed to close the trail and refer the campers to beds at shelters, permanent supportive housing and a new temporary Emergency Outdoor Shelter. Disappointingly, out of all the possible sites in central Santa Rosa, the County administration recommended only two sites for consideration for the location of the emergency outdoor shelter – a site on the county campus adjacent to a child care center, and Los Guilicos, which is far removed from services and served by only infrequent public transportation services on Highway 12. In a 4-1 vote, and with no public outreach, the Board hurriedly selected Los Guilicos as the site for the 60-unit temporary emergency outdoor shelter. I strongly dissented and asked the Board to consider holding a special meeting to review other centrally located sites more appropriate for this shelter, to no avail.
Saint Vincent de Paul, the operator hired to run what is now called Los Guilicos Village, has tried to work with these deficiencies. They do not allow residents to leave on foot or bicycle. Residents are required to wait for designated shuttles to take them into the city to access groceries, doctors, jobs and any other services. They are providing 24-hour security, and prohibiting fires, drug or alcohol use on site.
The only way we’re going to get through the urgent problem of people living without shelter is together. This is not only about Santa Rosa or Sonoma. Homelessness exists throughout the county, and the nation. Being homeless is not a crime; we can’t arrest people because they are homeless.
Los Guilicos Village is a good, but temporary emergency solution. The County should abide by its commitment to the community that LG Village would be the site of a “temporary emergency” outdoor shelter, operating only until April 30. I will fight any attempt to make this permanent or for it to exist much longer than originally proposed.
There are sensitive uses on the site – Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, Juvenile Hall, Sonoma County archives, the CASA office, grand jury offices, Hood Mansion, etc. We know that this area is extremely vulnerable to fires, power shutdowns and frequent evacuations. This is not the location for a fragile population.
Furthermore, the residents are discouraged from even leaving the fenced-in area, and they can’t even see outside of the fence. Is this what we want for our homeless community?
Next Steps - Comments to the Board of SupervisorsAs I stated above, the need for speed in setting up an emergency shelter was dictated by the homeless emergency on Joe Rodota Trail and compliance with the stipulated agreement with the Courts. The selection process was flawed, with inadequate time for public outreach to Oakmont and surrounding communities.
Those circumstances will not be present in the next stage of the County’s planning for homeless services, which is to select two longer term indoor/outdoor shelter sites. There will be better public outreach before the Board considers these sites on March 10.
Suggested methods to communicate to the Board of SupervisorsLetters are more often read than emails. But if you do send an email, please succinctly make your points.
Board of Supervisors meeting - March 10, 9:30 a.m.The Board will narrow the 10-12 selections offered by the County for locations for the long-term indoor-outdoor shelter; as of this writing, the County is not considering recommending continuation of LG Village, but the Board could make that recommendation at this meeting.
Indoor – residents will be housed indoors (pallet shelter homes or FEMA trailers now on their way to Sonoma County.)
Outdoor – Safe Parking will be offered to a limited number of homeless residents with security and services.
The following two weeks will give the County time for public outreach before the final selection at the March 24 meeting. You can review the information to be presented to the Board at the March 10 meeting at this link the Friday before the board meeting: sonomacounty.ca.gov/Board-of-Supervisors/?src=HomeGB2.
Often being present at the meeting makes more of an impression than an email.
Board of Supervisors meeting – March 24The Board of Supervisors will make the final selection of the two sites for the long-term indoor-outdoor shelters. (The time for this item is undetermined at this date. Please review the above link for the time and information on the sites for final selection.)
Read the Kenwood Press, Sonoma Index Tribune and Press Democrat newspapers. They do excellent reporting on homeless issues in Santa Rosa and the Valley. And undoubtedly, the newspapers will report on the sites and information to be presented to the board on the March 10 meeting, if they can do so in a timely manner.
We need to bring services to all the populations in need, and I will continue to advocate for equitable distribution of resources for the homeless population throughout the county.
Together, I know we can face this challenge. There will be missteps, but we need to keep at it as one community. Let’s get to work.
To stay up to date on the actions the County is taking to respond to this crisis, visit sonomacounty.ca.gov/Newsroom/Homeless-Emergency/. You can share your solutions and feedback by sending comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.