News organizations from around the Bay Area are working together today to shine a light on a problem that besets many California communities — homelessness.
Soaring housing costs and a lapse in housing construction over the past decade — along with inadequate public resources to deal with mental illness, addictions and other issues that plague the chronically homeless — have combined to create a nightmare scenario for those on the margins.
Unfortunately, it’s a nightmare with which Press Democrat readers are familiar.
According to official estimates, some 2,000 people are living without a permanent place to call home in Sonoma County, a homelessness rate that’s higher than San Francisco’s, which is the primary focus of today’s media coverage.
Although census data show the homeless population in Sonoma County declining 37 percent from 2011 and 2015 and dropping another 8 percent last year, downtown merchants, shoppers and workers contend homelessness is more visible than ever. That may be a result of ongoing efforts to clear out homeless encampments near the railroad tracks in preparation for the start of the SMART train service later this year. The visibility also is related to a perceived increase in aggressive panhandling, as well as outbursts by those suffering from mental illness.
What can’t be forgotten in the community debate about how to address the problem is that nobody is more vulnerable that the homeless themselves. This was demonstrated by the stabbing of a 32-year-old homeless man who was found dead early Monday on a downtown Santa Rosa sidewalk. Cirak Mateos Tesfazgi of Santa Rosa was the third homeless homicide victim in Santa Rosa this year.
As Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, noted, the homeless “already feel exposed and so vulnerable.” Ongoing concern about these homicides “adds another level of trauma and uncertainty,” she said.
Attacks like this underscore the importance of “housing first” initiatives, endorsed by local elected leaders, which are based on the simple notion that the best chance for success for intervention programs for homeless individuals — whether it involves taking medication, committing to addition programs or keeping a job — begins with making sure he or she has a permanent place to live.
In that area, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County can point to recent successes including the grand opening earlier this month of the Palms Inn, a 104-unit former motel on Santa Rosa Avenue that has been converted into permanent housing for homeless people, including veterans.
In March, Santa Rosa saw the opening of Dream Center, a short-term housing facility for those 18-24 years old, some of whom aged out of the foster care program and had no place else to go. According to Chief Executive Officer Matt Martin, the center, which is the only one of its kind between San Francisco and the Oregon border, has already reached its first-year capacity of 40. Meanwhile, nearby Tamayo Village, a similar facility, has also maxed out at 25 residents between the same ages.
But more work is needed as evidenced by the long lines that traditionally form outside most homeless service programs around Sonoma County and the long waits to get into assisted housing.
The issue has reached the point that, next month, the Santa Rosa City Council will consider declaring a homeless emergency, a move that would open up other programs to assist those living on the street.