Smith: The homeless play-acting, that was just part of One Cold Night

SAY’s sleep-out was merely an aspect of the night of empathy for young people grinding out a life on the streets.|

How special, a bunch of well-fed people with homes to live in and intact support systems layered on their snuggies, then unfurled sleeping bags on the pavement and for a single night posed as people relegated to the mean streets.

That’s what it looked like when I and about 60 others took part in One Cold Night, hosted by Social Advocates for Youth.

But, truly, it was more than that. The sleep-out at several outdoor locations across Sonoma County was simply a shared exercise amid a 14-hour immersion into the realities that confront many local teens and young adults.

I was more comfortable at the downtown Santa Rosa parking lot at 3 and 4 a.m. than I’d been at the introduction event hours earlier at SAY’s Dream Center. It was painful hearing from SAY staffers what life is like for so many young people abruptly emancipated upon aging out of foster care, or forced from their homes by abuse or other conditions we’d hate to imagine.

SAY figures that right now more than 500 youth live on the streets of Sonoma County. Its emergency shelter for young adults has filled to capacity every night since the 2017 firestorms.

Members of SAY’s street outreach team told of asking homeless teens and 20-somethings how many adults they could call on for help and being told, almost always: None.

We One Cold Night “sleepers” learned that some of the young people living outside are subjected to sex trafficking, and that those without pre-existing mental health issues develop them quickly from the trauma implicit in being outcast, ignored and frightened.

Of course, these kids commonly do things that are violent, dangerous, infuriating and off-putting. Before we sleepers were bused to where we’d spend the night, we were enlightened about the necessity to meet distressed, homeless youth where they are and to try not to judge their decisions and behavior or appearance.

We were urged to imagine, as we sat or stretched out beneath the stars, how it would be to be 14 or 18 or 23 with no money, no functioning family and no idea what tomorrow would bring.

We committed that one night to learning about, empathizing with and raising money for SAY services to those sons and daughters who curled up somewhere, again, last night.

SAY has put out word that a gift from benefactors will allow the doubling of donations made between today and the last day of the year.


DOUG ERNST has died.

My friend, the career Napa Valley journalist, passed last Tuesday, 10 days after he’d laughed and cried with his family, friends, colleagues and community at a most remarkable living memorial.

A funeral for Doug, who was 64 and for months put up with ALS, is at 1 p.m. Friday at Napa’s Hillside Christian Church.


TO HONOR ART: Today the Board of Supervisors intends to adjourn in memory of Art Janssen, who was born in Santa Rosa in 1909 and lived in Sonoma County for most of his life.

The WWII vet and former Sebastopol mayor died Friday, less than three weeks after he rode in the Hollywood Christmas Parade as a 109-year-old from the hometown of the late Robert Ripley of Believe It or Not!

It would have tickled Art to be remembered by the supes. He loved this place longer than any of us.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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