Outdoor plants turned into ice sculptures, windows covered in thick frost, temperatures in the teens and low-20s. It's beginning to look a lot like — someplace other than home. But for many, home or a warm place to stay is what's missing.
Sonoma County social service providers deserve high praise for working overtime this past week to find shelter for those most vulnerable. And it continues to be a struggle. With the county's homeless population having risen an estimated 25 percent since the recession, the half-dozen homeless shelters in Santa Rosa are at capacity, and, according to city officials, the waiting lists are long.
Overall, social service agencies in the county currently have beds for 584, although they managed to add another 102 beds last week. But that's far short of the need when temperatures drop.
According to the most recent count, Sonoma County is home to an estimated 3,300 residents who normally live outdoors.
Each year, 30 people on average die on Sonoma County streets, according to the state Department of Public Health. Many of them perish due in some way to harsh conditions.
Not long ago, Sonoma County relied on the National Guard Armory as an emergency shelter during cold spells. Not so anymore. Because of cost cuts, the armory is no longer an option.
Thankfully, volunteers have stepped up in an attempt to address the need. Volunteers at the Santa Rosa Homeless Services Center run by Catholic Charities managed to extend services last week. With the help of some timely donations, volunteers set up patio heat lamps, large tents and canopies and offered coats, gloves and other cold-weather clothing to a few dozen people who came in from the cold.
Some volunteers stayed through the night, serving soup and coffee and providing other kinds of assistance. The American Red Cross of Sonoma, Mendocino & Lake counties also helped by donating supplies to the warming stations.
Meanwhile, the Mary Isaac Center in Petaluma added 20 beds last week, according to Mike Johnson, CEO of Committee on the Shelterless, which runs the shelter.
The sub-freezing temperatures continue to pose other risks for Sonoma County residents. Authorities say a 52-year-old Santa Rosa woman was killed early Saturday when she lost control of her pickup and crashed on an icy patch of Highway 101 in Healdsburg.
Residents need to remain cautious especially when driving in the evening and early-morning hours as temperatures are expected to get down into the 20s again tonight.
Meanwhile, if you have an extra blanket to spore or can make a donation, consider supporting one of several local agencies that are seeking to make Sonoma County a warmer place than temperatures would indicate. These include Catholic Charities (www.srcharities.org, or call 528-8712); the Committee on the Shelterless (cots-homeless.org, or send a donation to COTS, P.O. Box 2744, Petaluma 94953); Redwood Gospel Mission (578-1830) or the James E. Coffee Teen Shelter (546-3432), an emergency shelter operated by Social Advocates for Youth for runaway or homeless teens.