Homeless population declines 2% in Sonoma County, despite sharp jump in homeless youth
A substantial surge in young people counted during this year’s annual census of homeless individuals in Sonoma County is raising troubling questions about how better to serve vulnerable youth living on the streets, officials and advocates said Thursday.
A total of 660 people younger than 24 - some as young as 12 - were living mostly without any kind of shelter, a 29% spike over last year, according to figures released this week.
The increase in homeless youth “deserves the underline and the exclamation point” from this year’s head count, said Katrina Thurman, chief executive officer for Social Advocates for Youth, which provides housing, counseling, job and educational support for young people.
Social service providers say they’re otherwise heartened, and surprised, to see the overall number of those experiencing homelessness decline slightly over the past year, despite a continued housing crunch exacerbated by the 2017 wildfires.
The point-in-time census, conducted Jan. 25, estimated a total of 2,951 people experiencing homelessness around the county - down 2% from a year earlier and well below the peak of 4,539 in 2011.
Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm described it as “a little ray of hope.”
Part of the explanation for this year’s downward trend, officials said, may be a mass exodus of residents in the year after the fire and, thus, reduced pressure on the local housing market. The U.S. Department of Finance in December estimated 3,300 people had left Sonoma County in the previous year.
But it’s more complicated than that, said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. She said the community’s ability “to hold the line” on homelessness also reflected ongoing, strategic investments in programs that transition people into permanent housing, targeting specific groups like those who are chronically homeless and need major interventions to address personal problems.
“There were really quite big shifts toward ‘housing first’ (initiatives) just in the last year,” Van Vliet said, “and that means we have been getting chronically homeless being housed, off the street, in a way that’s been making a dent in that population.”
The number of chronically homeless dropped 10% last year, from 7?47 individuals in 2018 to 675 this year, according to the new report. The federal government defines chronically homeless as those with at least one disabling condition who have been homeless for a year or longer, or, for at least four episodes totaling 12 months in the last three years.
“These are the people who are very visible in our community,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities, the largest contract provider of shelter and services for the homeless in Sonoma County. “These are typically the individuals who are often interacting with our public safety branches,” or whose other community costs, like emergency response and medical needs, are high.
It’s also “the most challenging population to try to house,” Schwedhelm said.
But this subgroup still accounts for 23% of those experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County. Of that, 80% are in some kind of emergency shelter or temporary shelter, at least, the report says.
Another major subpopulation consists of those under age 25 - 666 of them living on their own, some quite young, though most are in the “transition-age” range of 18 to 24.
They include 117 unaccompanied children up to age 17, nearly all unsheltered, according to the census report. Last year’s count of underage youths, at 34, was a mere fraction by comparison.
Another 549 transition-age youth were counted this year, including 93% who were unsheltered. As a rule, they tend not to have the experience or knowledge to find services that might help, Thurman said. They also feel the stigma and fear of homelessness quite heavily, so they may be harder than adults for outreach workers to find.
The result is they are unprotected and especially vulnerable.
“You know, as a community, if we were just to think about, ‘what’s the life experience that’s happening to each one of those young people as it get dark every night,’ it’s really worth our attention and understanding the factors, and then going to work on understanding what we can do about it,” Thurman said.
Even those into their 20s often lack a credit or a rental history that makes it possible to rent an apartment or house, Thurman and others said. As a result, they’re the first to be squeezed out in a competitive rental market.
Many find themselves on the streets when a friend or family member who previously allowed them to stay on a couch or in a spare room had to downsize because of rising rental prices - a story Thurman and other social service providers said they had heard time and again.