Michael Scott, 55, sat at the edge of a small makeshift tent set up between discarded concrete chunks along the railroad tracks near Jennings Avenue in Santa Rosa.
The morning sun had just begun to bring a little warmth to the day after a long, rainy, near-freezing night for Scott and an estimated 3,295 others who are homeless in Sonoma County. Just after dawn Wednesday, a team of outreach workers, police officers and deputies visited camps along the railroad tracks and nearby creeks to offer housing and services to some of the most vulnerable homeless people.
“Take these guys up on their offers for housing; you have to leave as early as Friday,” Santa Rosa Police Officer Jesse Cude said to Scott, whom he’s known for about 20 years. “You can’t stay here when the SMART train comes.”
“I can’t stand it,” Scott said. “I’m dirty all the time. I can’t wash my clothes. My stuff gets stolen all the time. Last night it rained for hours.”
Homeless for decades, Scott represents the kind of people the outreach workers were hoping to find during the effort with Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies.
Typically, shelter beds and other services have been offered on a first-come basis, and the result was the most capable people were getting housing. Sonoma County last fall launched a new program overhauling how the shelters and nonprofits that receive funding from the county allocate beds and services.
Factors including mental illness, substance abuse, criminal history, bad credit, chronic homelessness and others that used to prevent people from finding even emergency housing are now tickets to shelter.
“They are the most likely to die on the streets,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing with Catholic Charities Diocese of Santa Rosa, the organization spearheading the change.
Catholic Charities is running the county’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, joined by staff with homeless services nonprofit Buckelew Programs, Social Advocates for Youth and other agencies as well as the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
The federally mandated initiative aims to make it easier for the sickest, neediest people to connect with the county’s network of services. The most current homeless census data, from 2013, found 4,280 homeless people on the streets, with 77 percent living outdoors and the remainder living in emergency shelters or temporary housing.
Since January, outreach workers and Santa Rosa police have gone once a week to homeless camps. Using a new “vulnerability index,” they have assessed the amount of time people have been homeless, the severity of their health conditions and mental health complications, criminal history and other factors to rank people on a vulnerability scale of 1 to 16.
They have so far contacted 168 people, made 116 assessments and put nine people into housing. The average person ranks at a level 10, Holmes said. The nine individuals housed so far are in market-rate apartments rented by Catholic Charities with funds from the county.
In the six months before those nine people were housed, they reported 257 interactions with law enforcement, 14 ambulance rides, 24 hospitalizations and 39 emergency room visits, according to Holmes.
“That’s just in six months. And that is what they self-report,” Holmes said.