After steadily declining for six years, homelessness is on the rise in Sonoma County.
A 6 percent year-over-year increase, identified in an annual, one-day count of people living in shelters, in cars, in temporary quarters and on the streets, is, at least in part, a ripple effect of the October fires that destroyed more than 5,300 homes.
Of the 2,996 people counted in the Feb. 23 census, 5 percent said they were left homeless by the fires, and 35 percent said they were homeless for the first time, up from 24 percent in 2017.
A subsequent telephone survey identified thousands more who are couch-surfing or living in temporary quarters, with about half attributing their circumstances to the fires.
These newly homeless people present an added challenge for a county already struggling with chronic homelessness.
There’s an obvious parallel between October’s fires and the economic crisis that caused the last big increase in homelessness a decade ago. Both were sudden, unexpected and ambushed people who hadn’t previously experienced homelessness — and may not have thought of themselves as at-risk.
Optimistically, that suggests that, for many, their predicament won’t be permanent.
As people got back on their feet following the Great Recession, homelessness in Sonoma County declined quickly from a peak of 4,539 in 2011.
However, it’s going to take considerable time to replace all of the housing units lost in the fires — pointing to another, more troubling parallel between the last spike in homelessness and this one.
The first serious attempt to count the homeless in Sonoma County occurred in 2009, the year after the mortgage bubble burst, thrusting the country into recession. The tally was 3,247 — but it swelled by about 30 percent before topping out two years later.
Service providers and local government officials worry that they’re seeing just the first wave of fire-related homelessness and that substantially more people will need help as they exhaust their financial and social resources.
“The cycle that typically happens is they’re couch-surfing, staying with family and friends, and eventually that’s not sustainable,” said Jennielynn Holmes, the director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. “And that’s when we see people entering homelessness for the first time, and that was very much what happened with the 2008 financial crisis.”
Sonoma County needs more temporary and permanent housing for its newly homeless and its chronically homeless population.
That won’t be easy to accomplish, but the county is eligible for up to $12 million in state funding for homeless services following Tuesday’s emergency declaration by the Board of Supervisors. The money could be used for vouchers and shelter space, officials said, but the county will have to compete against Los Angeles and other larger communities for funding.
Advocates for the homeless are pressing for sanctioned campsites around the county, but past problems with sanitation and occasional violence are likely to make potential neighbors wary.
However, as this year’s count again affirmed, homeless people aren’t coming from outside the area to take advantage of mild weather or generous services: 84 percent had a home in Sonoma County before becoming homeless, and 65 percent lived here for more than 10 years before becoming homeless.