Number of chronically homeless people spikes in Sonoma County, an ‘alarming’ pandemic-era finding
Chronic homelessness in Sonoma County has increased over the past two years even amid a surge in government spending, and the ability to afford rent is one of the leading obstacles for people who become or remain homeless, according to a final report from the county’s point-in-time count earlier this year.
The Feb. 25 count, summarized in preliminary results this spring, documented a 5% increase in Sonoma County’s overall homeless population, to an estimated 2,893 homeless residents, the first reported increase since the 2017 North Bay fires.
But the final report for the annual census, released earlier this month, showed an even more dramatic 43% increase in chronic homelessness since 2020, a troubling finding that has concerned homeless advocates and affected businesses and residents dealing with homelessness issues countywide.
Chronically homeless residents include those who have been continuously homeless for one year or more and/or those who have become homeless on four or more occasions within the past three years. Their numbers shot up to 725, with more than two-thirds of those individuals found to be without any shelter, according to the final report.
“Our most vulnerable population is the chronically homeless and the fact that number went up from 2020 is an alarming number,” said Jennielynn Holmes, CEO of Catholic Charities of Sonoma County, the region’s dominant homeless services provider.
The increase came during a period marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and a 550% increase in homelessness spending by Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, the two largest local governments. Together, they spent an unprecedented $44 million on housing homeless people at pandemic shelter sites through the first 15 months of the pandemic.
Though homelessness has increased 5%, Michael Gause, the county’s homelessness program manager, credited federal, state and local funding with preventing the overall increase from being larger.
The annual census, required for state and federal funding, provides a snapshot of the local population living outside and in shelters in Sonoma County.
But officials and advocates note that because the data is collected on a single day every year, the count cannot be solely relied on as a comprehensive study. A survey of over 400 people experiencing homelessness supplemented the street count. The information is used to help identify trends, needs and ultimately inform policy decisions.
“The value in the point in time count is the top line number,” said Gause, referring to overall data. “Did it grow a little bit? It’s the number that’s going to guide a lot of policy decisions.”
This year’s count has come with an extra note of caution from officials.
The county did not conduct the count in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the count was collected differently because of the surge in coronavirus cases linked to the omicron highly infectious variant, said Gause.
In order to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, the county held virtual training for volunteers instead of the typical in-person training and restricted volunteers to groups of people already in each other’s social circles. This also impacted the number of paid guides available to help volunteers with the count, Gause said.
Gause and Dave Kiff, interim executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, presented the final report to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The report noted that 32% of homeless residents surveyed had become homeless for the first time. Holmes, citing that figure, stressed the need for service providers and local officials to offer preventative services that help people with financial literacy, access to education and higher paying jobs.
Of the overall population, 26% of homeless residents were living in vehicles, the report found.
Another significant trend, Holmes said, was the breakdown in age of those experiencing homelessness. The report showed 24% of people surveyed were between 41 and 50 years old, and 28% were between 51 and 60 years old, the largest numbers for all age groups, and 15% were 61 years and up.
In 2020, 22% of people surveyed were between 41 and 50 years old, 19% were between 51 and 60 years old and 13% were 61 years old and up.
“We’re starting to see a need to focus in on our older adult population, both in the homeless system of care but people who are already housed too,” Holmes said.
Data from the latest count also showed the number of people in shelters decreased by 23% and the number of people who were unsheltered increased by 23%.
Gause called the shift in unsheltered and sheltered individuals “jarring” and said part of that shift may have been due to limited space in shelters due to COVID-19 precautions in place when the count was taken.