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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