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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.

Now that he feels stable, Gerolaga said he hopes to resume work as a security guard, while Lara enrolls in a phlebotomy technician's program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The area's tight housing market, combined with a depressed economy, has created a surge in "first-time homeless families," Holmes said.

Many are people who were living paycheck to paycheck and were pitched out of their homes by some financial setback. "They were barely making it, and now their safety net has dropped," Holmes said.

Bank foreclosures, which have displaced more than 10,000 county homeowners since 2007, have contributed indirectly to homelessness by depleting the supply of rental housing, she said.

Hard times also have pushed more families into poverty and hunger.

When money is tight, people will cut back on food in order to pay rent and utilities and put gasoline in the car, food bank director Goodman said. Many of those calling for help in recent years "never thought they would be seeking food assistance," he said.

"They are upset," he said. "Ashamed to be out of food."

Forty-five percent of Sonoma County students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-11, up from 23 percent in 2000-01, and they are predominantly elementary-age kids.

The percentage of Sonoma County families with children living below the federal poverty level last year was 13.4, up from 9 percent in 2009, according to the Census Bureau.

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The federal poverty level for a family of four was about $23,000 last year, about one-third of Sonoma County's median income of $61,000.

Goodman contends that the poverty level statistics are misleading because the figure is "just a point on an economic scale" and doesn't include any of the families living marginally above the line.

"Hunger is closer than ever for many people," said Billy Bartz, food drive and event coordinator at the food bank.

The nonprofit's Winter Food and Funds Drive aims to collect 200,000 pounds of food and $200,000, twice as much as five years ago, officials said.

Holiday programs are also expanding with the hard times.

The Secret Santa program, managed by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, aims to fill more than 15,000 gift requests from schools and nonprofits throughout the county.

Last year, donors enabled the program, known for its red plastic hearts bearing personalized gift wishes from children, adults and seniors, to fulfill about 13,000 requests, said Marty Wait, Secret Santa coordinator.

The Salvation Army's corps of volunteer bell ringers hit the streets with their red kettles last week hoping to collect $169,000.

Last year the effort raised about $153,000, said Jennifer Freitas, volunteer services coordinator.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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