Do homeless service programs change lives?

They can. Ask Mike Johnson. He was homeless for 10 years, abusing alcohol and drugs, surviving on charity and odd jobs before connecting with the Committee on the Shelterless, a Petaluma agency that offers shelter, meals and support services. Today, Johnson is executive director of COTS.

"I was one of the fortunate ones who made it back," he said at a forum Wednesday on homelessness in Sonoma County.

The challenge is bringing more people back.

A survey in 2013 found 4,280 people living in shelters or on the streets of Sonoma County. That was down slightly from 2011, but it was still a third higher than 2009, and the number of chronically homeless climbed from 979 to 1,148 over four years.

Among the other findings: Seventy percent of the homeless were residents here for at least 10 years. More than 500 were less than 18 years old. A third became homeless after losing their jobs; one in five had a job but no home.

The economic costs of homelessness are tallied in such things as emergency room visits and incarceration. The human costs are harder to calculate, but they're visible throughout the county — encampments along trails and creeks, a morning exodus from shelters, people clustered in libraries and outside stores, passing their time or panhandling.

At the Shine a Light forum, sponsored by The Press Democrat and Sonoma magazine, Johnson and other panelists described services such as computer training, assistance with resum? and "hire attire," which provides clothes appropriate for a job interview. Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the county recently hired about two dozen mental health and substance abuse counselors.

These time-tested programs can get people's lives on track — if they're ready, and if they can get in the door.

There are bottlenecks at both ends of the support network in Sonoma County — long waiting list for spaces in local shelters and the programs they offer, exacerbated by a shortage of affordable housing that prevents many people from moving out of shelters when they've saved enough to rent homes of their own. It ripples out as missed opportunities and, in some instances, to substance abuse and crime.

"You have a moment of clarity after you've been on the streets a while," Johnson said. "At that moment, if you're denied services, what are you going to do? You're going to go right back to what you know."

Zane said the county needs 1,000 units of low-income housing, "and we need them yesterday." The county has one planner dedicated to affordable housing, and Burbank Housing chief Chuck Cornell says projects are in the pipeline, but there's currently no money for construction.

For now, more promising is the Santa Rosa Planning Commission's approval of an emergency shelter and rental housing at the old Warrack Hospital for young people aging out of the foster care system.

"It's not just about jobs and housing," Johnson said. "It's about building resiliency for kids."

That's an ongoing job that may save some youngsters from needing more intensive services to escape homelessness.