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See all Sonoma Gives stories here



There’s a chilling moment in the movie “Titanic,” after the collision with the iceberg, when it’s clear that not everyone on board is going to get a lifeboat, and that the passengers in the cheapest berths will be on their own, to sink or swim.

In Sonoma County after the fires, a handful of agencies mobilized to prevent something similar from happening here, as fixed resources became stretched to accommodate lower-income residents newly homeless from the fires and those already living on the streets. Two of the busiest, Santa Rosa’s Catholic Charities and Petaluma-headquartered Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), are spearheading efforts to provide beds in shelters, housing support and a range of case management services for people who find themselves homeless.

Since the fire, the two agencies have seen the number of calls for assistance double. They are now bracing as a “second wave” has begun, of fire victims who’ve run out of funds, lost jobs or worn out their welcome while camping on friends’ and families’ couches.

Staff at the agencies also are concerned that the public, which stepped forward with generous aid for the thousands who lost homes in the fires, may forget the thousands of people who were already homeless before the fires, or were teetering on the edge, trying to hang on in a tough and increasingly expensive housing market.

“On Oct. 7, a homeless crisis existed,” said Jennielynn Holmes, “and on Oct. 8, when the fires hit, it magnified.”

Holmes is the bright and energetic senior director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, and in her tiny A Street office, she scans a computer screen to see who’s currently staying in the 138-bed Family Shelter next door. It’s full, with two pregnant women in their third trimester, a number of single moms, several families who lost homes to the fires, four domestic violence victims. Another dozen men and women occupy the Crisis Beds, which serve as the shelter’s “emergency room.”

The average age of people staying in the Family Shelter, she said, is 12.

Does Sonoma County need more shelter beds?

“Adding shelters is not going to fix the problem,” Holmes insists. “We need to free up shelter beds by opening more housing.”

That approach to homelessness reflects a relatively new change in philosophy.

Outside the Catholic Charities’ homeless drop-in shelter on Morgan Street, Brian Bernard thinks it’s a good change. At 56, Bernard is lively but moves with a cane after three small strokes. He just learned he’s a grandfather, he said, beaming.

Bernard spent six months in the Nightingale Shelter after being discharged from the hospital and now has moved into housing with assistance from Catholic Charities, a room in a shared home. Despite the trouble he’s had trying to secure a frame for his mattress, he’s pleased to be in housing and out of shelters.

“I have things I want to do,” he said. “I know people who are shelter hoppers. Six months in this one, then they move on to the next.”

Bernard slowly shakes his head. In the shelters, “it takes so much effort to get things done,” he said.

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Bernard is hoping to land a position as a peer counselor to assist others making the transition. He’s articulate and, he admits, blunt.

“I slept in weeds, mud, a truck,” he said, “so I understand what that’s like.”

Another local, Kevin Pickering, just learned he’s getting off the waiting list and will be moving into housing. Pickering is clean-cut, soft-spoken, with calloused hands. He has been helping at the drop-in shelter for two years, setting people up, helping keep the neighborhood clean. Soon he’ll be starting as a peer counselor, a position he has earned.

Pickering said the people who come to the drop-in shelter include families, veterans, people who can’t make rent, some working, some without jobs, some with mental problems and addicts. There are people, like himself, hoping to make things better. He credits his chance to the staff at Catholic Charities.

“It’s run by loving people who really care,” he said quietly.

Indeed, employees moving about the shelters, the street outreach teams, the intake coordinators, can be heard talking with upbeat, positive directness and good humor. It sets the mood.

In the drop-in shelter kitchen, there’s laughter from a small group fixing the day’s simple breakfast. In the next room, an old box-style television runs in the corner, facing lines of chairs occupied by relaxed viewers, still dressed for sleeping outdoors in January.

“When I started here eight years ago, there was no housing for people in shelters to move on to,” Holmes explained.

Today, Catholic Charities manages more than 300 beds for the homeless, including at the Palms, a converted motel that is now home for a permanent population of highly disabled homeless and veterans. COTS has 337 beds: 177 beds of permanent housing and 160 beds of shelter for adults and families.

Both groups are now looking for additional partners to help them expand a new level of housing: donors and especially property owners to participate in the managed leasing programs both agencies operate.

“They’re philanthropic landlords,” explained Sarah Quinto, chief development officer at COTS, “and this year’s goal is to double the number we have today.”

Renting out through the agency has practical as well as philanthropic benefits. Under a master leasing contract, COTS provides the property owner guaranteed rent, takes care of minor repairs, pays the rent if clients can’t and manages the entire property rental process, from screening to overseeing the tenants.

How does that work out for property owners? Mike Von der Porten has been leasing his three-bedroom, two-bath house near Santa Rosa’ Coffey Park neighborhood through COTS for two years. When he started, Von der Porten said, his concern was whether he’d get good tenants. He has found COTS does a good job of screening.

“It’s now home to a single man, another man and his daughter, and a mother with two young kids,” he said. And while he rents at a discount from what he used to charge, Von der Porten said he is willing to take less to help folks having a hard time. And he’s aware that finding housing is exceptionally hard now.

To help encourage property owners, Catholic Charities is offering incentives such as cash bonuses to new philanthropic landlords.

“We have an inside joke,” Quinto said, “that it’s time to end homeless services. But that really is our goal: to reach the point where there’s no child, no family or individual living here without a roof over their head.”

COTS and Catholic Charities provide professional case management to those facing a housing crisis, but their priority is to ensure that clients have shelter. This Housing First approach, based on hard evidence and experience, is also now a requirement for receiving local, state and federal funds.

The goal at both agencies is what they call rapid rehousing. Years of studies have shown that when people spend too long without housing or housed in shelters, it is increasingly hard for them to climb out. They start adapting to their circumstances, and despite living in extreme crises and vulnerability, begin to psychologically accept being homeless as normal.

Holmes notes that Coast Guards report a similar phenomenon with refugees on the high seas: it can be extremely difficult to talk refugees off their boats, even when they are adrift and clearly in danger.

Before the fires, countywide efforts were bearing fruit. The past five years have produced modest but steady declines in the homeless population, according to the Point-in-Time Count, an annual countywide effort to contact and count the homeless living here. The next count won’t be taken until the end of January.

But as Quinto explains, many families and individuals who were already struggling with local housing costs, or were already homeless, are now facing even steeper odds.

Holmes notes that the thousands of families displaced by the fires, many with financial support from insurance or FEMA vouchers, are placing additional strain on what was already an exceptionally tight housing market. The vacancy rate before the fires was about 1 percent. The fires have driven up competition for available space as well as rents, Holmes said. While California has capped rental increases at 10 percent, even that’s a big jump for people living paycheck to paycheck.

The result, as happened after the 2008 financial collapse, is that low-income renters get pushed out, Holmes said, many of them longtime Sonoma County residents.

In 2017’s count, for example, nearly 80 percent of the homeless were locals. Half had lived in Sonoma County for one or more decades before becoming homeless. Nearly 45 percent had been homeless for less than 11 months.

Catholic Charities operates on an annual budget of $11.5 million and quickly received $1.2 million in grants to help with fire relief. COTS operates on an annual budget of $5.1 million and received fire-related grants of $40,000, including $30,000 from the county for winter weather bed expansion to house occupants of the last evacuation shelter when it closed.

Both say those funds fall short of serving the growing need for homeless housing. They say they hope that here in Sonoma County, unlike the ill-fated Titanic passengers in the frigid North Atlantic, help is gathering on the horizon.

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