Pushed from hidden encampments, plight of Santa Rosa's homeless grows more visible
Jennifer Badolato's banged-up red Nissan is more than just a car. It's her home.
The Santa Rosa woman doesn't make enough money in her job at Walmart to afford an apartment in Sonoma County, where rents have skyrocketed over the past four years to an average of $1,700 a month.
So Badolato, who became homeless in November, lives on the road, driving from spot to spot, spending her paycheck on gas, food and the occasional hotel room, 'just to stay sane.'
'It's been hard,' said the 44-year-old woman as she waited with a dozen others outside a downtown Santa Rosa nonprofit offering free breakfast bars and hot showers. 'But it's better to live in a car than on these streets.'
Santa Rosa is swarming with homeless people who have been pushed from hidden encampments into startling public view. With affordable housing scarce and shelters at maximum capacity, many are turning up at storefronts and on median strips, in city parks and under freeway overpasses.
Police are flooded with complaints about public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and loud fights at all hours. In May, a homeless man was killed in an attack at Rae Park across the street from City Hall that police said was fueled by a dispute over cigarettes or pot.
The problem has become so bad that next month, the Santa Rosa City Council will consider declaring a homeless emergency as part of a slate of measures intended to get people off the streets.
'The indisputable fact is we have a serious issue with homelessness, not just downtown but citywide,' said Santa Rosa police Lt. John Cregan, the department's point man on the topic. 'And we're going to have to do something about it.'
Officials estimate 2,000 people are living without permanent shelter in Sonoma County as a whole, a homelessness rate higher than San Francisco and three times the national average of about 18 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.
Although overall numbers are down from the previous year, visibility has increased and there's a perception among residents and downtown merchants that homelessness is actually on the rise.
Homeless people who once lived in hidden encampments along creeks and rail lines have been forced out by waterway cleanups and the arrival of a new regional commuter train.
Others believe homeless people are coming from outside the area to take advantage of better transient services. But according to an official estimate, about 85 percent of the county's homeless population were last housed locally and 55 percent have lived in the county 10 years or more.
What's being done
In response, city and county officials have teamed up with nonprofits such as Catholic Charities to tackle the problem head-on.
They opened a Santa Rosa Avenue hotel to homeless veterans earlier this year, adding about 100 beds to existing shelters housing about 1,000 people.
Teams of social workers have fanned out, offering services and putting people on waiting lists for temporary housing. Santa Rosa this year doubled its annual spending on homelessness programs to $1.6 million and is planning construction of thousands of affordable housing units in the next five years.
At its July 19 meeting, the council will vote on emergency provisions that could loosen camping restrictions in cars and on private and public lands, including some city parks. Also on the agenda, council members will discuss placing a bond on the November ballot that could raise up to $100 million to be spent on housing the homeless.
A poll conducted earlier this year showed strong support for such a measure, City Councilwoman Julie Combs said.
'The city has a lot of needs and not enough money for them all,' said Combs, a member of the council's subcommittee on homelessness. 'We're aware this is a need, and we've made it a priority.'
Sonoma County isn't alone in grappling with the problem. More than 116,000 people statewide are said to be homeless, with about 60 percent living outdoors. Officials in urban areas such as Los Angeles are reporting double-digit increases in homelessness with an expectation the worst is yet to come.
Lawmakers this month came up with a sweeping proposal to spend $2 billion for construction of permanent housing for the state's poorest residents. Another $200 million may be allocated for housing subsidies.
In Sonoma County, the problem comes amid a housing shortage that is driving up rents and creating waiting lists to get into temporary housing. At Catholic Charities' Samuel L. Jones Hall, the county's largest adult shelter, the wait is almost a month as people stay longer to look for permanent dwellings.
'We didn't have waiting lists four years ago,' said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities' director of shelter and housing. 'We can't get people into housing like we used to.'