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Sonoma County Homelessness Spikes Despite Government Aid

The annual census found that chronic homelessness rose 43 percent since 2020, even as the county and city of Santa Rosa spent an unprecedented $4 million on housing homeless people through the first 15 months of the pandemic.

(TNS) — Chronic homelessness in Sonoma County, Calif., has increased over the past two years even amid a surge in government spending, and the ability to afford rent is one of the leading obstacles for people who become or remain homeless, according to a final report from the county's point-in-time count earlier this year.

The Feb. 25 count, summarized in preliminary results this spring, documented a 5 percent increase in Sonoma County's overall homeless population, to an estimated 2,893 homeless residents, the first reported increase since the 2017 North Bay fires.

But the final report for the annual census, released earlier this month, showed an even more dramatic 43 percent increase in chronic homelessness since 2020, a troubling finding that has concerned homeless advocates and affected businesses and residents dealing with homelessness issues countywide.

Chronically homeless residents include those who have been continuously homeless for one year or more and/or those who have become homeless on four or more occasions within the past three years. Their numbers shot up to 725, with more than two-thirds of those individuals found to be without any shelter, according to the final report.

"Our most vulnerable population is the chronically homeless and the fact that number went up from 2020 is an alarming number," said Jennielynn Holmes, CEO of Catholic Charities of Sonoma County, the region's dominant homeless services provider.

The increase came during a period marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and a 550 percent increase in homelessness spending by Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, the two largest local governments. Together, they spent an unprecedented $44 million on housing homeless people at pandemic shelter sites through the first 15 months of the pandemic.

Though homelessness has increased 5 percent, Michael Gause, the county's homelessness program manager, credited federal, state and local funding with preventing the overall increase from being larger.

The annual census, required for state and federal funding, provides a snapshot of the local population living outside and in shelters in Sonoma County.

But officials and advocates note that because the data is collected on a single day every year, the count cannot be solely relied on as a comprehensive study. A survey of over 400 people experiencing homelessness supplemented the street count. The information is used to help identify trends, needs and ultimately inform policy decisions.

"The value in the point in time count is the top line number," said Gause, referring to overall data. "Did it grow a little bit? It's the number that's going to guide a lot of policy decisions."

This year's count has come with an extra note of caution from officials.

The county did not conduct the count in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the count was collected differently because of the surge in coronavirus cases linked to the omicron highly infectious variant, said Gause.

In order to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, the county held virtual training for volunteers instead of the typical in-person training and restricted volunteers to groups of people already in each other's social circles. This also impacted the number of paid guides available to help volunteers with the count, Gause said.

Gause and Dave Kiff, interim executive director of the county's Community Development Commission, presented the final report to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

The report noted that 32 percent of homeless residents surveyed had become homeless for the first time. Holmes, citing that figure, stressed the need for service providers and local officials to offer preventative services that help people with financial literacy, access to education and higher paying jobs.

Of the overall population, 26 percent of homeless residents were living in vehicles, the report found.

Another significant trend, Holmes said, was the breakdown in age of those experiencing homelessness. The report showed 24 percent of people surveyed were between 41 and 50 years old, and 28 percent were between 51 and 60 years old, the largest numbers for all age groups, and 15 percent were 61 years and up.

In 2020, 22 percent of people surveyed were between 41 and 50 years old, 19 percent were between 51 and 60 years old and 13 percent were 61 years old and up.

"We're starting to see a need to focus in on our older adult population, both in the homeless system of care but people who are already housed too," Holmes said.

Data from the latest count also showed the number of people in shelters decreased by 23 percent and the number of people who were unsheltered increased by 23 percent.

Gause called the shift in unsheltered and sheltered individuals "jarring" and said part of that shift may have been due to limited space in shelters due to COVID-19 precautions in place when the count was taken.

According to the final report, 23 percent of people surveyed said job loss was the primary cause of their homelessness and 63 percent said unaffordable rent was an obstacle to finding permanent housing.

Gause said the job loss statistic was "not surprising" given the impact of the pandemic.

Those numbers underscored the need to address more affordable housing and more permanent housing with support services, experts said.

"Permanent supportive housing is what we need to tackle the chronically homeless population," Holmes said.

Kiff said that more than 80 new interim housing beds and 80 new permanent supportive housing beds are due to open in the coming weeks under Project Homekey, a $3.5 billion state-funded initiative to expand housing options for people experiencing homelessness.

"There has been a lot of progress made, including since the count," Kiff said.

The newly opened $53 million Caritas Center, a three-story multiservice shelter located near downtown Santa Rosa, is one of the projects that officials and advocates expect will help meet housing needs.

The center, developed by Catholic Charities, includes a 40-room shelter with 192 beds for local families, as well as a child care program and health clinic among other services. It received $11.36 million in Project Homekey funds.

Kiff and Gause said they expect the center will help further reduce family homelessness, which dropped from 80 homeless families with children in 2020 to 48 in 2022, according to the 2022 report.

Gause said the number has been decreasing since 2014.

"We're getting pretty close to getting to a place where we can talk about functional zero (for families)," Gause said.

Kiff also said he expects more solutions and resources will come through a strategic plan being developed by the Community Development Commission along with the county, local cities and service providers.

"The strategic plan ... really does take a look at that and make some solid recommendations," Kiff said. "I'm excited about where it's headed."

(c)2022 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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