If Sonoma County is at a crossroads on homelessness, Pete Mogannam of 4th Street Deli and Market has the best view of it.
Despite all the positive initiatives launched in recent months to trim the number of unsheltered in our midst, Mogannam is seeing something different from where he stands at his cash register overlooking Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square.
“In my 20 years here, I have never seen it this bad,” he said. “The aggressive panhandling, the screaming, the foul language, this is the problem.”
These are the outliers, the chronically homeless who often intimidate those who come downtown to dine and shop. They are individuals who, more often than not, have mental health and/or addiction issues and don’t respond well to the communal living environments of traditional homeless shelters. When they get out of control, Mogannam calls the police, and things get better for a couple of hours or a couple of days. But then the problems start again.
“I try to befriend them,” he said. Sometimes he does so out of kindness. Sometimes it’s kind of an insurance policy in hopes one of them doesn’t throw a rock through his window. “But I’m not a social worker,” he said. “I have a business to run.”
Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, understands the problem. As of last year, she said, Sonoma County had seen a 27 percent decline in the number of homeless since 2013 due in part to an improving economy and in part to local initiatives that have resulted in the county housing “more people than ever before.” But despite those accomplishments, “we definitely have seen an increase in visibility,” she said.
Although those who cause problems account for less than 10 percent of the unsheltered population, she said, “For (Pete), this is the face of homelessness.”
Holmes and others who work closely with those on the streets say the increased visibility is due in part to the work on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line, which has resulted in the rousting of dozens if not hundreds of homeless individuals along the railroad tracks through Marin and Sonoma counties.
So what’s to be done? Addressing this aspect of homelessness — the last mile, so to speak — won’t be easy. This will be one of the topics of discussion on Wednesday when Holmes and other community leaders take part in Lost in Paradise II, a panel discussion on taking steps to confront homelessness in and around Santa Rosa.
The forum is a follow-up on a similar community discussion that The Press Democrat sponsored two years ago. At that time, the focus was on the rapidly rising number of people under the age of 24 who were living on the streets. Preliminary results of the latest homeless census are expected to be out later this week, hopefully by Wednesday. But Holmes says her perception is that the number of young people without housing has gone down significantly, due in part to the opening of the Dream Center at the old Warrack Hospital site on Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road. The center, operated by Social Advocates for Youth, officially opened in March and eventually will be providing temporary and permanent housing for up to 63 people while also serving as a center for job training. Roughly 250 people, from ages 14 to 24, have already been trained there.