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Homeless people throughout Sonoma County will no longer need to juggle spots on several waiting lists or navigate multiple programs to access shelter under a centralized system being put in place by local government and nonprofit leaders.

Over the next several weeks, Santa Rosa’s Catholic Charities will lead the expansion of a 2-year-old pilot project that aims to provide a single “front door” to shelter for homeless residents by broadening the initiative’s reach from single families to the county’s entire homeless population, last estimated at about 3,000 people.

Prior to the launch of the coordinated intake project, homeless families would often need to make multiple in-person visits to service providers to figure out their process for housing, connect with the right people and get on a waiting list if necessary, said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ director of shelter and housing. For homeless people “in the middle of crisis and chaos and trauma,” the decentralized approach proved particularly difficult to navigate, Holmes said.

“Now they find one point of contact, and that one point of contact kind of triages and navigates them to any of the shelter or housing beds in the county,” she said. “Rather than having to go to multiple people, they go to one.”

Implementation of the program, known as “coordinated intake,” was triggered by a mandate in federal law, and its expansion was recently authorized last month by the Board of Supervisors.

The action comes as homelessness has become an increasingly visible and pressing issue for several local cities and communities, with the transient population straining public safety departments, downtown merchants and service providers.

To expand the project, officials will tap nearly $250,000 in federal funds awarded to the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, which is contracting with Catholic Charities for implementation.

Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director, said the coordinated intake project will make it easier for homeless people to access the county’s service system.

“We have to be able to track folks, no matter who’s serving them, and we have to not put them through the ringer six times just because they might encounter one agency one day and then another few months down the road encounter a different agency,” Van Vliet said.

Federal funds will allow Catholic Charities to hire several new mobile- intake staff members, whose work includes helping homeless people navigate the county’s network of services, according to Holmes. Catholic Charities will also hire two housing navigators, one full time and one part time, to work with the real estate community and help homeless people find permanent housing, Holmes said.

Additionally, the development commission was recently awarded a $50,000 annual renewable federal grant to expand its Homeless Management Information System, which Van Vliet described as technology that helps track homeless people across different service providers in the county.

Another key shift taking place through the coordinated intake system is that shelter waiting lists will move from a first-come, first-served approach to a system based on vulnerability, Holmes said.

“It’s kind of like what you do in the emergency room if you have someone who shows up who’s having a heart attack and someone else has a stubbed toe,” she said. “You prioritize the person with the heart attack. We need to prioritize based on a person’s needs and literally life-or-death situations.”

During the first year of the coordinated intake pilot project, the program assisted 1,285 family members, according to the county. It took people an average of 57 days to exit the program into their own home, down from 196 days prior to implementation of the project, according to the county.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane used the statistic as evidence of the “amazing outcomes” coordinated intake can offer the county.

“It’s really producing results,” Zane said last week.

Catholic Charities hopes to have the expanded coordinated intake system up and running within the next month or two, Holmes said.

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