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Sonoma County homeless shelters full as temperatures drop


Sonoma County emergency shelters are full this week as homeless people try to escape sub-freezing nighttime temperatures.

The mercury was expected to hit a low of 31 degrees early today in Santa Rosa after lows of 27 degrees early Thursday and 28 degrees Wednesday. And warmer weather is forecast for the next few nights.

"We've been on overflow for about a week and a half now," said Jennielynn Holmes-Davis, program manager at the Catholic Charities Family Support Center on A Street. The 120-bed facility got city permission to add 18 beds on a temporary basis.

With other facilities also at full capacity, thousands of people remain without indoor shelter. They are camping along the railroad tracks, at the coast, under bridges, in cars, beside trails and riding buses as late as they run.

"I can't get in until the 20th," said Larry Boody, 41, who is on the waiting list at Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square.

"It's cold," he said, smoking a cigarette in downtown Santa Rosa on Wednesday afternoon. His shopping cart of possessions held a blanket.

"It is so brutal," said Jeff Gilman, the Redwood Gospel Mission's executive director. I can't imagine what it's like. ... All the shelters are full, there's no place to go."

The Sixth Street mission has added beds in its chapel, and now has room for 150 men, Gilman said.

There were 3,366 people living outside in Sonoma County in January 2011, and 534 shelter beds, the most recent official census of homeless found.

While the cold is hard, the good news is that at least it's not raining, said Mike Johnson, chief operating officer for Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS.

"For the folks out there on a regular basis, they've got the survival skills to weather the cold, typically," he said. "But when it rains as well, it becomes really intolerable."

Johnson said COTS's Mary Isaak Shelter, with its 100 beds full, is not adding any others, though it has a waiting list of about 30 people. They add up to 20 beds when it becomes dangerously wet and cold. A COTS resource worker is making weekly visits to places in the city known to be frequented by homeless people to connect them with other services, he said.

In Guerneville, all 25 beds are full at the emergency shelter in the Veterans Hall run by West County Community Services.

People with pets or behavioral problems are not allowed to stay at the shelter, but are being given sleeping bags and tents when possible, said the nonprofit's Executive Director, Katrina Thurman.

The shelter hasn't yet had to move to the larger room that it has available because temperatures along the river haven't dropped below freezing until morning, when people are leaving, she said.

"We do try to send folks out with extra jackets, socks, dry underclothes (which) make a big difference, and we have a hot beverage for folks going out in the morning," she said.

In Santa Rosa, Holmes said that staff and volunteers have been handing out blankets and sleeping bags and "we're in the middle of a big campaign to get out on the streets" to hand out more supplies.

"We've given out more sleeping bags than we've ever given out this year," she said.

Sitting in Courthouse Square on an afternoon that had turned pleasantly warm, Joe Loomis, 58, said that was all he needed, preferring to stay outside.

"I've got a sleeping bag and a couple of blankets that I cover up with, it's OK," he said.

He opts not to go to the mission, he said, because people who stay there are required to attend a church service.

"I don't need to be evangelized," Loomis said. "It's not bad; it's not wrong; it's just their rules."

And the Sam Jones Hall, run by Catholic Charities in southwest Santa Rosa, is too far to get to, he said.

But a few blocks away, standing outside the Sonoma County Central Library, Mike Dunnivand, 41, said it was a relief to get inside. He and a companion just got a bed at the Sam Jones Hall, he said.

"We got in by the chin of our chinny-chin-chin," he said. He used an unprintable word to describe being outside at night in cold as cold as it's lately been.

"You're stressed all the time," he said.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jeremyhay