Rohnert Park set to consider more homeless initiatives
Emily Morris-Jarboe leaned back in a haze against a blue mailbox outside the Target store in Rohnert Park one afternoon last week. She sat on the ground, shoeless, panhandling where she’s become a familiar face, with all of her worldly possessions stacked in a child’s stroller nearby.
“The one thing I am glad of is that, No. 1, my kids are not seeing me like this,” said the 40-year-old Kansas native. “I’m sad that they’re not seeing me, but they’re not seeing me like this.”
Morris-Jarboe, and her partner, a 33-year-old man named Joe who says he is a U.S. military veteran, have been homeless in Rohnert Park for about a year now.
He said his descent into homelessness is tied to post-traumatic stress disorder from two tours in Afghanistan; hers, she said, followed the untimely death of her brother about a decade ago.
Their journeys have taken them down different paths, but include prior stints together bouncing between Sonoma County and Reno and Topeka, where Morris-Jarboe left her two children behind with an ex-husband. Ultimately, though, it’s led them to the same destination - outside a big-box store in Rohnert Park, trying to shake loose another dollar to get by for just one more day.
The couple is far from alone.
Rohnert Park actually saw a 7% drop in its homeless population this year, based on an annual count of homeless people across Sonoma County. But when combined with neighboring Cotati, the two cities saw a 24% spike in homeless residents - up to 173 people - many of whom are facing mental health or substance abuse issues. Add in Petaluma, and the three cities that make up the south county have almost 450 homeless people - about 15% of the county’s total.
The numbers understate the area’s true homeless population, according to Rohnert Park staff and local homeless advocates.
At Rohnert Park’s City Council meeting Tuesday night, the city will explore a suite of new homeless services recommended by staff that total almost $450,000.
The options include leasing shelter beds in Petaluma, creating an incentive program to encourage landlords to rent to people transitioning out of homelessness, and contributing to a countywide fund for permanent supportive housing.
The City Council will also entertain the idea of designating a parking lot that’s safe for people living in their vehicles to stay overnight.
In July, the council voted to ban overnight parking at five city-owned lots, targeting a park-and-ride facility at Roberts Lake Road near the SMART tracks that was being overrun each night by homeless people in campers and recreational vehicles.
The city previously committed $500,000 over the last two years toward rapid rehousing to get a handle on the rising homeless population, plus this year put another $75,000 in reserve if state and federal funds dry up in the future.
Through a partnership with the Petaluma-based nonprofit Committee on the Shelterless, Rohnert Park is working to offer help in a part of the county that’s traditionally been underserved with its lack of shelter beds and other programs to assist those who have lost their housing.
“There’s really no services in Rohnert Park. Basically, there’s never been anything here,” said Cecily Kagy, the COTS outreach specialist for Rohnert Park and Cotati. “It’s kind of been out of sight, out of mind, and all of a sudden it’s exploded.”
Kagy, 45, is in a special position to know, as a resident who was formerly homeless after herself dealing with the challenge of addiction. Through her personal experience, she has since February been able to provide assistance to those going through homelessness, including legal advocacy, rides to medical treatment, haircuts and help getting new ID cards on their way to landing back on their feet and being rehoused.
The former state psychiatric nurse has spent two years with COTS.
She sees her recent shift to outreach work in the area as a calling, though, and hopes to help Rohnert Park develop a comprehensive approach that the rest of the county could use as a model for success.
“Some of the people you see me encounter, I know from when I was homeless,” said Kagy. “I know what it’s like to have to search for a car that’s abandoned and sleep in that backseat, or have your family be so ashamed of you. I know the feeling too of somebody not wanting to hug you, because you’re so dirty. This is my way of giving back.”
Access to a consistent shower, charging stations for cellphones, and more food bank sites are what Cotati native Wendy Bruce, 56, said would be most helpful to her.
She and three other people experiencing homelessness maintain a secluded, four-tent encampment off Hinebaugh Creek; each should land in transitional housing in the next two months as a result of Kagy’s work, she said.
“I just finally got my HUD housing voucher. I’m trying my damnedest,” said Bruce, who said she’s been homeless since February 2018, when a sober living house she helped run in Petaluma closed. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to go look at a place to live and show up looking like you’re homeless? There is no way to keep (up) our hygiene. We’ve got nowhere to shower.”
Aside from the additional services and production of more affordable housing units, there’s one other thing that Bruce, who suffers from back problems and is disabled with Crohn’s disease, said she’d ask the City Council to consider: educating the community on the realities of being homeless.
“They don’t understand homeless people,” she said. “They don’t understand that not all of us are getting high and not wanting to work. This is rough. It isn’t easy. We’re doing what we have to do to survive.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to more accurately describe where the city has spent $500,000 over two years, toward rapid rehousing, not strictly outreach.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @kfixler.