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Homeless Camp Sweep by Law Enforcement
Homeless Camp Sweep by Law Enforcement

Homelessness

Aug 1, 2018
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County

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Many of you have likely already read articles about the County’s 2018 Homeless Census —or perhaps you’ve read the full report yourself. (If you haven’t, note the link to the report at the end of this article.) As such, I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, but I’d like to highlight a few key points:

Our countywide homeless population increased this year by six percent. Worse, we now have 21,000 “precariously housed” residents — meaning people who neither own their own home nor have a formal renting arrangement, such as a lease. These folks, often crammed into spare bedrooms and trailers on others’ properties, could very easily become homeless. The homeless increase and the huge number of precariously housed residents is why the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declared a formal state of emergency regarding homelessness.

There is some good news, however. Homelessness decreased in West County. The 2018 count tallied 214 homeless people in unincorporated West County and 69 in Sebastopol, a decrease of 36 and two in each respective area.

The report suggests that the October 2017 firestorm played a big role in the overall increase in the county’s homeless population, as well as the high number of precariously housed individuals. However, the report doesn’t offer reasons as to why unincorporated West County saw a 14% decrease in homelessness. But it certainly appears that the Herculean efforts of community members, service providers, non-profit organizations, grassroots organizations, and law enforcement are helping to move the needle and transition some of our most vulnerable residents into housing in West County.

I’d like to thank the fantastic nonprofits that received grant funding from the Community Development Commission, and also the citizen-led Russian River Homeless Task Force which oversaw the grant disbursal process. I was able to secure $1 million during the 2017 budget cycle to address the surge of homelessness in the Russian River area, and those funds—in the form of grants to local non-profits—are already showing real results. 

A grassroots volunteer organization, the Russian River Community Alliance, has worked to prevent homelessness in the lower Russian River by offering help to residents at risk of losing their housing. So far, spending only $10,000, RRCA has managed to keep ten working households—including 15 adults, 5 kids, and 1 unborn baby—in housing through their Lower River Community Workforce Fund. Volunteer and workforce advocate Jeniffer Wertz has dedicated thousands of hours to this effort; at times, she was volunteering and advocating 40 hours a week. Today she volunteers an average 15 hours a week to keep her fellow community members housed. 

Meanwhile, Chris Brokate of Clean River Alliance has been hard at work launching Guerneville’s first-ever Clean Streets Team. This innovative program works with volunteer homeless residents to clean up downtown Guerneville. Chris described it as “one of the neatest things I’ve been able to do or witness,” and recalled how he’d repeatedly seen cars pulling over to tell the Clean Streets Team thank you. So far, the team has logged 122 hours of work over the past 6 weeks through the help of 12 different homeless residents. Working together, the Clean Streets Team has already cleaned up 1,500lb of debris and trash.

And of course, West County Community Services has been working hard to get homeless residents off the street and into safe, stable housing. According to Tim Miller, executive director for West County Community Services, 62 individuals have been housed so far. Miller said that only eight individuals were housed prior to the point-in-time count, meaning that the number of homeless residents in the lower Russian River has continued to decrease after the census was taken in February.

West County Community Services has been busy not only connecting people to housing through “rapid rehousing,” but also providing supportive housing opportunities. Miller’s teams offer housing in both the Lower Russian River area and in Sebastopol. Eight families have been housed at Sebastopol’s Park Village, located on the eastern edge of town near the Laguna de Santa Rosa Bridge, for a total of 14 people. WCCS is now focusing on remodeling vacant apartments in the rear into two-bedroom apartments that will likely be ready next year. Guerneville’s Mill Street housing project continues to provide support services to some of our most vulnerable residents.

Beyond provide housing space, WCCS is working with other area nonprofits, specifically West County Health Centers, to help reduce the barriers preventing some of our area homeless from getting into housing. For example, through the leadership of WCCS, WCHC andCounty Human Services, Miller’s team received a three-year grant from Archstone Foundation to address chronic depression. With the grant funding, WCCS will place a full-time case manager at West County Health Centers in Sebastopol. The medical staff there will refer seniors suffering from depression to the in-house case manager, who will then conduct home visits and provide support to those clients.

WCCS will also begin offering the River area’s only walk-in free counseling, thanks to a grant from Kaiser Permanente. A counselor will be available at WCCS for 25 hours a week, providing professional help for any individual or family in crisis. Additionally, Project Hope, a FEMA-funded organization, will continue to support families working through fire-related trauma in West and North County through January.

West County Health Centers is also beginning work on tackling another barrier to housing: drug addiction, which affects roughly 33 percent of our homeless population, disabling them from finding stable housing or employment. In particular, WCHC is focusing their efforts on opioid abuse, which has taken hold of Sonoma County, especially the Guerneville area. Knowing that federal laws will be changing and restricting the prescribing of opioids, WCHC is poised to understand how the regulation changes will affect many of its clients.

“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” said Jason Cunningham, medical director for WCHC. Cunningham said he’s worried about the landslide of issues that tightened regulations could have on WCHC’s patients. As such, WCHC has partnered with Bright Heart Health, a Southern California healthcare provider specializing in telemedicine for drug abuse.

“We can really break the barriers and four walls of traditional care,” Cunningham told a group of west county stakeholders in early July during an introduction to WCHC’s plan to tackle the opioid crisis. Bright Heart has a $5 million grant to provide drug abuse counseling and recovery services in Sonoma County.

With services that focus on housing first as well as addressing some of the barriers into entry, I am hopeful we can continue to reduce the number of homeless community members in West County and, hopefully, countywide as well. It won’t be easy, the process won’t be perfect, and we have many challenges ahead—but we will keep working to end homelessness in our County. 

LINK TO HOMELESSNESS POINT IN TIME COUNT: sonomacounty.ca.gov/CDC/News/2018-Homeless-Count-Report-Now-Available/

Our County by Lynda Hopkins

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