As the new year begins, I have so much to be grateful for. These past couple of years have not been easy, but I am warm, and dry, and fed, enjoying time with my family. I cannot help but think of those in our community who have none of these things. Right now, almost 3,000 people are living under the Verano and Ig Vella bridges on the Sonoma Creek, in RVs up in Cloverdale, along the creek bank in Glen Ellen and the river in Guerneville, and of course on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.
Counties along the West Coast and elsewhere are struggling to address this issue. A confluence of factors led us to where we are today: the gutting of our mental health and social safety net programs over the last decades, worsening economic inequality, rising housing costs, government inaction and even hostility to unhoused residents, the list goes on and on. Governments, community organizations, churches, and individuals all try to step up, but the problem is too large for any one of us. The time for dramatic, structural action is now, and the Board of Supervisors is committed to creating housing options and providing essential mental health and substance abuse services.
There are no easy answers; every potential solution has some drawbacks. There is a lot of misinformation about our unhoused neighbors. One misconception is that our services attract people from out of the area. This is simply not the case, and we have the data to prove it. As of the last yearly homeless count, more than 85 percent of those counted were from the area, and the vast majority of those had lived here for 10 years or more.
Another common misconception is that most of the homeless folks choose to live outside in a tent rather than in stable housing. Again, the data just doesn’t show this to be true; almost 90 percent of those surveyed indicated they would like affordable, permanent housing were it available.
Our homeless include our veterans often suffering from PTSD, transition-age youth and unaccompanied children without support networks, families, chronically homeless and distressingly older adults (too often single women).
In December the Board of Supervisors declared a Homeless Emergency and created a multi-department Joint Operations Center to coordinate the County’s response, particularly to the large encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail along Highway 12 in West Santa Rosa. We held a special meeting the week of Christmas to approve specific actions and invest $11 million to jump-start our response. To start, we approved funds that will go to cleaning up the current encampment, making it safer and cleaner for those who have found themselves there.
For the longer term, we invested in a variety of strategies, including establishing indoor/outdoor shelter options so that we can return the trail to the walkers and bicycle commuters, and allow the county to enter into leases, and buy properties, to create supportive housing and communal living environments. We also heard from the Community Development Commission that we have something like 400 permanent supportive housing units already in the pipeline that are coming on line in 2020, with more planned for the future.
The County then held a meeting of service providers, trail residents, concerned citizens, and advocates to drill down into what exactly an indoor-outdoor shelter would look like. Participation was strong, and the county has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for locations and services. The board will get an update later this month.
These actions are a great start, but I have some real concerns that I was not shy about sharing from the dais. While the Joe Rodota Trail currently has by far the largest population of unhoused folks, I don’t believe that means that we can concentrate all of our investments in the Santa Rosa metro area. It is not fair to ask folks to travel that far to access what they need. We need to bring services to all the populations in need, not ask them to come to us.
I am advocating for us to expand our emergency declaration to cover the whole county, and for equitable distribution of resources for the homeless population throughout the county. I am also asking for an in- depth needs assessment of unhoused folks in the Sonoma Valley and elsewhere.
Long gone are the days when a cot in a dormitory style shelter is considered the gold standard — now we need to look at an individual’s specific needs, which are dynamic and multifaceted. I agree with this approach; one size fits all was never adequate.
And we are required to abide by a negotiated settlement, balancing the needs of our homeless population, the City of Santa Rosa and the County. We cannot arrest people just because they are homeless. We need to assess their needs and offer them services and housing appropriate to their needs, as well as offer them storage space for their belongings.
Each one of our 3,000 unhoused residents is an individual with specific needs, and the County and service agencies will help to guide them to a safer, more adequate living situation; it is not going to be easy or quick. But it is the right thing to do, the only thing we can do.
With some hard work and a little luck, 2020 can bring about a new landscape where we lessen the suffering of our unhoused neighbors, and help them get into a stable home, whatever that looks like for each person. We will need to work together on this – electeds, community members, advocates, service providers, neighbors and friends.