Sonoma County Has a Homeless Crisis.
Is There a Response Plan?
A self-initiated investigation by the 2019-2020 Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury interviewed 18 key leaders involved in the homelessness crisis in Sonoma County. The interviewees represented law enforcement, appointed and elected officials, governmental department heads, homeless service providers and formerly homeless individuals.
The Grand Jury attended Board of Supervisors meetings (in person or through streaming video) when homelessness was on the agenda. Additionally, the Grand Jury obtained data from the sonomacounty.ca.gov website, including data from the many departments tasked with addressing homelessness.
Approximately 3,000 county residents are without permanent housing each night. About 2,000 of them also have no temporary shelter. They sleep in cars, RVs, doorways, and temporary encampments under a freeway overpass, along a road, or on public property. Recent encampments include “Homeless Hill” off Farmers Lane, “Camp Michela” in Roseland, and a large collection of tents and temporary shelters along the Joe Rodota Trail. The numbers of homeless individuals have remained virtually unchanged over the last several years despite various plans to find or generate housing. Homelessness is as extreme an emergency as a natural disaster. As such, it deserves the same sense of urgency and a response of similar scope.
When the fires of 2017 occurred, the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. An emergency response center was set up at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in a matter of days. Hundreds of first responders were housed in trailers and tents within hours. Emergency response teams such as the Red Cross connected fire victims with temporary housing immediately. Floods and fires in 2019 similarly involved large-scale evacuations and temporary shelter options. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted shelter-in-place orders, massive business shutdowns, and park closures to help ensure “social distancing.” The approximately 3,000 homeless residents require a crisis response as well.
Homelessness does not respect political boundaries. Multiple governmental and private agencies provide services to the homeless in Sonoma County. Much of the funding for these services comes from state and federal sources and is disbursed on a year-by-year basis, making long-term planning difficult. Use of these funds must adhere to guidelines based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development model known as Housing First, which prioritizes permanent housing over temporary shelters. The policy places the most vulnerable at the highest priority for housing.
The greatest constraint on housing the homeless population is the lack of available accommodations of any type. There are simply not enough beds to fulfill the needs. Nevertheless, multiple plans and policies to “solve” the homelessness crisis have been adopted, with little change in the numbers of people sleeping on the street.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the lack of adequate planning was that of the encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail in the fall of 2019. The homeless encampment grew to nearly a mile in length and at least 250 strong before public awareness and pressure dominated the news. The Board of Supervisors responded to the crisis with a hastily developed plan that committed over $12 million for various shelters and services. This occurred while under the restrictions of a legal settlement in response to the October 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the Boise case. The settlement required that homeless people displaced from encampments on public land be offered suitable shelter as well as a number of other services. Sixty (60) of the trail occupants were placed in tiny houses installed at Los Guilicos and
approximately thirty (30) others were placed in other temporary shelters. Over 150 homeless people determined there was no viable option for them and chose to search for another spot to pitch their tents.
Despite representing less than 10% of the county homeless population, the Joe Rodota Trail emergency resulted in a significant redistribution of homeless funding. The Joe Rodota Trail problem could have been averted had a plan been developed and implemented to provide adequate shelter options.
The Sonoma County homeless population has remained relatively constant for the past four years. During this period, Sonoma County has struggled to address homelessness with a variety of reorganizations, leadership changes, and planning studies. These efforts have produced little change.
During this time, the County and the City of Santa Rosa used Housing First as a model for addressing homelessness. In 2018, these governmental entities, along with the City of Petaluma created a new governing body, the Home Sonoma County Leadership Council (LC), intended to be the homelessness policy coordinating governing body for the County. The Community Development Commission (CDC) currently serves as the lead agency. In addition, the Home Sonoma County Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was formed to serve as an advisory body to the LC. The LC began meeting in mid-2018 and disbursed $14 million in state and federal funding for homelessness-related services in 2019. On the advice of the TAC, the LC subsequently adopted a Coordinated Entry System (CES) for making assessments and decisions regarding both shelter and permanent housing.
Finding safety and security in groups, many homeless people form encampments throughout Sonoma County. The largest and most visible of these was the Joe Rodota Trail (JRT) encampment in 2019, but many encampments had formed and disbanded in earlier years.
Joe Rodota Trail (JRT)
Examples include “Camp Michela” in the Roseland neighborhood, “Homeless Hill” near Farmers Lane, and a sidewalk encampment in the 6th Street undercrossing of Highway 101. Other homeless encampments formed in Guerneville, Cloverdale, and Glen Ellen.