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Sharp drop in people without any shelter in Sonoma County

A targeted look at Sonoma County’s homeless population shows that the number of people who sleep outside has dropped by as much as 40 percent in two years, a decline that county officials and service providers attribute to the local economic recovery and an increase in federal housing assistance for homeless people.

New figures set to be released next month show the number of homeless people found outdoors on one day in January this year dropped to 2,000 people, down from 3,300 people counted in 2013.

“We’ve made some encouraging progress,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, who leads the county’s homelessness initiatives. “We’re moving in the right direction, but we still have 2,000 people sleeping outside, so we have a hell of a lot of work to do.”

The new figures do not reflect the county’s comprehensive homeless count, which takes in people sleeping in shelters and living in vehicles. Abramson said she is still crunching the overall numbers, but the total is expected to rise.

Still, preliminary figures show that the number of people who are sleeping outside has declined significantly. The evidence so far is mostly anecdotal, but the drop appears to reflect the region’s financial growth over the past two years. The county has received more federal housing and rental subsidies to help the homeless, and it seems that people who were marginally homeless in years past are achieving financial stability.

The county’s homeless count, conducted every other year, is required in order for counties and cities across the country to qualify for federal homeless aid and housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sonoma County spends about $20 million on homeless programs every year, with most of the dollars funneled from the federal government.

Last year, that money helped 700 homeless people into local housing, according to Abramson.

“People are still having great difficulty finding housing, but rapid rehousing money appears to have made the biggest difference slowing the trend into homelessness,” she said.

The people who remain on the streets are likely those who suffer from more severe mental illnesses, disabling physical conditions and substance abuse issues, according to dozens of interviews with homeless people and experts who work in the field.

“These are the most vulnerable people, the ones most likely to die on the streets,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

Backed with $1 million from the Board of Supervisors, Catholic Charities last winter launched the county’s new homeless outreach team - a group of case workers and mental health specialists who team up with law enforcement agencies to scour areas along creeks and rivers in search of homeless encampments. Their goal is to connect chronically homeless people - those who have been on the streets the longest, many of whom suffer from multiple health complications - with services, and eventually, housing.

County supervisors supported the project and this year extended it through the summer of 2016 with an additional $200,000.

“The outcomes so far are so exciting,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who helped drive the effort. “We’re saying we can help people who have become homeless by helping them get into housing, and it saves so much money on emergency treatment and jail. If we don’t pay for it up front, we’re going to see terrible costs down the road.”

The Homeless Outreach Services Team, as it is known, mimics efforts underway in other parts of California, including in San Francisco and San Diego. The idea is to deploy mental health and social workers in search of homeless people who do not seek services on their own, then evaluate their needs and sign them up on a waiting list for housing. Armed with smartphones and tablets, the team is equipped to do on-the-spot enrollment for safety net services like health care and food stamps, eliminating the bureaucratic hurdles homeless people previously had to undergo if they wanted assistance.

Nan Roman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, said local efforts are in line with national strategies aimed at combating homelessness.

“The bottom line is homeless people need housing,” Roman said. “The communities that are reducing homelessness are doing so because they’re getting people into housing faster.”

Since January, the homeless outreach team has identified about 300 people who expressed interest in moving indoors. Thirteen of those people have been housed.

Ilana Weiss is one of them.

“This changed my life. … I was so sick before. I only weighed 95 pounds,” she said from her sofa in her new Santa Rosa apartment, where she lives with another formerly homeless woman. “I don’t think I would have made it much longer.”

When a genetic spine disorder rendered Weiss unable to work, she ran into financial difficulty and had to move out of her apartment in Marin. She stayed in cheap motels in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, but when her savings dwindled, she had to move into her car.

Things got worse when her 1992 Mercedes died in a Safeway parking lot in Rohnert Park. Then she was on the streets, sleeping in sheltered spots - an archway behind a doctor’s office or a vacant shop doorway. She spent many nights sleeping across from the DeTurk Round Barn, where, she said, weddings and music at the venue “made me feel like a person.”

Weiss, who is 55, was one of the first people housed by the county’s homeless outreach team. She qualified immediately and moved into her apartment last October.

“She was so frail,” said Brandon Thibeault, a case worker with Catholic Charities. “We knew we had to find something.”

Sonoma County is seeking to house many more homeless people in the coming years. The county last year adopted a policy known as Housing First, nationally recognized as the most effective way of addressing homelessness. The idea is simple: Housing, together with aid services, offers the best way to get people off the streets.

But rising rents in Sonoma County and a low number of vacancies have resulted in what homeless service providers say is their most pressing problem: having nowhere to put people.

“We really need landlords to partner with us so we can find people housing,” Holmes said.

County supervisors this month floated the idea of funding a housing navigator, a person tasked with identifying potential units and convincing landlords to offer up their space in exchange for market-rate rental subsidies. Santa Rosa city officials also are studying whether they could fund a program that would place homeless people in vacant campsites while they wait for housing.

Since Weiss was housed roughly six months ago, her health has improved drastically, and she’s engaged to be married. She also has started to help the county’s housing effort any way she can - talking to other homeless people about the benefits of moving indoors and attempting to break down what she calls a stigma in society against the homeless by talking openly about her experience.

“Almost anyone can wind up homeless. … You never expect it,” she said. “This place is a miracle. I would have died out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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