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Sonoma County's homeless and hungry often hidden

  • Lonnie Gerolaga, his partner Marisol Lara, and their daughters Angela Gerolaga, 3, and Angel Gerolaga, 8 months, spend the afternoon at their transitional housing unit run by Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. ((BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat))

Sonoma County's vineyard-covered hills, tidy subdivisions and busy shopping malls convey an abundance of well-being that masks an uncomfortable reality: overflowing homeless shelters, thousands of hungry people and a growing number of impoverished families.

"Everybody thinks it is someplace else," said David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the county's largest hunger-relief organization.

The Santa Rosa-based nonprofit distributes food every month to 78,000 children, seniors and working families, which amounts to one out of six county residents.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities is recording "unprecedented numbers" in the homeless shelters it operates, with the cold-weather season just beginning.

Sam Jones Hall, a 120-bed shelter for adult men and women in southwest Santa Rosa, has been at capacity 15 to 20 times in the last three months.

"It's only going to get worse," said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities' manager of shelter and housing, with winter beginning in three weeks.

The agency's family shelter, with 138 beds in downtown Santa Rosa, has maintained a waiting list since July, now numbering 28 families. A family consists of at least one person over 18 and a child under 18.

Lonnie Gerolaga and his partner, Marisol Lara, got into the family shelter in March, after a month on the waiting list and "moving up" in priority with the birth of their second daughter, Angel.

The couple had previously lived for a time in their car while their older daughter, Angela, 3, stayed with relatives.

"It wasn't a comfortable way to live," said Gerolaga, who said he lost his security guard's job in 2007 and subsequently found occasional construction work.

Homelessness "doesn't have race," he said. "You can be anybody and something can happen to you and you're homeless."

The family just moved into transitional housing, sharing a four-bedroom house on Morgan Street with another family, a single mother with two children.

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