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How Barbie Robinson led Sonoma County’s response to homelessness

Over the past 14 months, Barbie Robinson has had three overlapping crises on her hands in her job at the top rungs of Sonoma County government.

Not only has she served as the county’s health services director, but since January 2020, she’s also led the county’s Community Development Commission, the main homelessness and affordable housing agency.

So before the pandemic even began in March of last year, Robinson — who is leaving in May to become the public health director in Harris County, which includes Houston — already was juggling the county’s long-standing housing shortage and its homelessness emergency. The latter exploded in late 2019 with the largest-ever unsanctioned encampment staked out over 2 miles of a popular biking and walking trail in west Santa Rosa.

Leadership of the commission has churned over the past two years with the departure of two executive directors — Margaret Van Vliet in August 2019 and Geoffrey Ross in January 2020.

Ross, now a deputy director in the state Department of Housing and Community Development, resigned as the crisis on the Joe Rodota Trail came to a head, with up to 250 people camped on the trail and public outcry for more immediate action to address the settlement.

The Board of Supervisors gave the job to Robinson, who pledged at the time to “work with the cities and community partners to develop housing solutions that support the housing continuum to meet the needs of our community.”

Leadership lauded

The dual appointment — overseeing the county’s second largest agency with Health Services, and then the CDC job, as well — gave her an exceptionally broad and unrivaled portfolio among fellow bureaucrats in county government.

And her leadership — lauded by supporters as clear-eyed and driven, but criticized by others as overly unilateral — has coincided with an aggressive surge in county spending on homelessness, largely in response to the Joe Rodota Trail crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only formal homeless count available during her tenure showed a marked year-over-year decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county, down about 7% in 2020 compared to 2019’s data.

“I do think that we’ve transformed the way that we provide services to vulnerable populations,” Robinson said in November when the county released the full census results.

But Robinson and her staff have drawn criticism for forging ahead on projects without adequately communicating important information about their plans with the public and even government officials and service providers that are ostensibly partners with the county in the battle against homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.

Case in point: the county’s effort to buy the Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa, one of two high-profile hotel purchases supported by state and federal dollars to house homeless people amid the pandemic. No word of the county’s bid for the property, which became final in late 2020, reached Santa Rosa City Hall or the general public until the item came up on a Board of Supervisors meeting agenda over the summer.

Robinson, who has rebuffed some critiques of her leadership style while acknowledging others, said Wednesday in an interview that her proudest accomplishments included her work on the county’s homeless crisis, including resettling residents of the Joe Rodota Trail encampment and last year’s passage of Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax to raise millions of dollars each year for mental health and homeless services.

“I’m just really grateful to the Board of Supervisors who trusted my leadership,” Robinson said. “They entrusted me to lead the efforts and I will immensely miss the staff of that department.”

Creation of village

Shortly before Robinson took over the commission’s leadership, the Board of Supervisors approved an $11.6 million package of emergency spending — put together after weeks of work by Robinson and Ross — to facilitate the clearing of the Joe Rodota Trail encampment.

That emergency spending helped create the Los Guilicos Village, a 60-bed shelter in east Santa Rosa that opened in January 2020 as the county’s first managed homeless site. The county has paid the nonprofit St. Vincent De Paul of Sonoma County about $2.5 million to run the shelter, according to an estimate provided by Jack Tibbetts, St. Vincent’s executive director and a Santa Rosa councilman. Like several other current and former elected and appointed officials, he declined to comment Wednesday about Robinson’s departure.

The subsequent 2020 homeless census, released in full in November, showed the decrease of 7% in homelessness countywide, from 2,951 to 2,745 individuals — the lowest mark in more than a decade. That included a 16% drop in the number of chronically homeless people, from 675 in 2019 to 562 last year.

Bold moves in pandemic

The pandemic brought further opportunity for bold moves. Under Robinson’s direction, Sonoma County applied for and received $16 million in emergency state funding to buy and convert the 44-room Hotel Azura, and the 31-room Sebastopol Inn into permanent housing for homeless individuals.

Those moves caught Santa Rosa City Hall by surprise — and frustrated some residents in the city and in Sebastopol, raising concerns about the county’s accelerated approach to both projects, which came initially without outreach to neighbors.

Combined, the estimated cost to run the two hotels for homeless housing will hit about $4.6 million a year for the next two years. The county may tap Measure O, a countywide sales tax hike passed in November, to help cover that spending. Robinson was a vocal advocate for the long-sought revenue measure, warning that without it, the county could face “painful reductions to programs and services” that “will have detrimental impacts to vulnerable populations.”

The Community Development Commission, under Robinson and predating her tenure, also is the main government agency providing staff support for the local Continuum of Care board, a regional homelessness planning group and clearinghouse for state and federal funding.

Robinson last summer tried to overhaul the body in a way that would address calls for better representation by smaller Sonoma County jurisdictions. But her push prompted a request from the board for a legal opinion that found the entity had been formed improperly, scuttling her plan and forcing the suddenly illegitimate panel to remake itself late last year.

During that process, a coalition of service providers, advocates and elected officials wrote to county officials to voice a litany of concerns about the homeless system of care, including lack of communication from Robinson and her staff.

In an interview last year, Robinson acknowledged a lack of information sharing but argued that those communication issues had existed before her time leading the Community Development Commission.

Jennielynn Holmes, the chief program officer for the largest local homeless services provider, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, credited Robinson’s work on tough issues that seem to spark community tension even in the best of times.

“I think she’s one who likes to think outside the box and try to do things differently, which I think is always good when you’re facing big social issues like homelessness or dealing with a global pandemic,” Holmes said.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that the Department of Health Services is the second largest in county government, after Human Services.

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