Close to 200 people gathered in downtown Santa Rosa Friday night in the chill and rain to highlight the plight of homeless children and young adults in Sonoma County.
Organizers of the Social Advocates for Youth Dream Walk said the event was meant to give voice to homeless young people, whose numbers in the county are more than six times the gathering in Old Courthouse Square.
"If they don't have a place to sleep that's safe and stable, an education and self-esteem, then they can't dream," Cat Cvengros, SAY's director of development said of kids and young adults who are on the street.
Following the event in the square, the crowd, made up largely of supporters and volunteers of the social service agency, walked a few blocks around the downtown holding green LED candles.
Participants went into Third Street Cinemas to watch a short video featuring Sonoma County homeless youth.
While they chose Friday to come out in the crummy weather "some people don't have a choice ... sometimes through no fault of their own," Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm told the crowd huddled under umbrellas.
They heard from a number of speakers, including Kerry Rego, a woman who was homeless in the 1990s at the age of 16 on the streets of Santa Rosa.
"If SAY hadn't been there for me and showed me what safety looks like, I don't know where I would be," said Rego, who remembers spending two days at the emergency teen shelter.
After staying in a garage with no heat or electricity, the shelter was "heaven," she said.
She said she is now a motivational speaker and author. But Rego held back tears as she spoke of a young man she spent time with on the streets who died at the age of 22 after spending half his life homeless.
A 2013 census of homeless in Sonoma County found there are 1,128 children and youth who are homeless on a given night.
The survey counted individuals between the ages of 12 and 24, who were unaccompanied, i.e without family members, according to Cvengros.
About 5 percent of those counted were in shelters or "couch surfing," she said. The rest were "staying somewhere that's not meant for human habitation — outside, in a car, or under a bridge."
"These kids just need a place to sleep at night and get a leg up," John Meislahn, SAY board president, told the Old Courthouse Square crowd.
Matt Martin, SAY executive director, said the homeless youth have typically been abandoned by parents and their family and have lost their support systems.
Many are victims of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, Martin noted.
"These young people, they're not criminals. They are victims, not victimizers," he said.
Chief Schwedhelm urged the audience to make the Dream Center a reality. It involves a plan to transform the former Warrack Hospital into an affordable housing center, also offering counseling and job programs for young adults.
The project, aimed at helping foster children who are at risk of becoming homeless when they turn 18, has faced opposition from neighbors worried about criminal activity, drug use and insufficient supervision at the facility if it goes forward.
The police chief acknowledged it will be "a challenging discussion."