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Sonoma County homeless census finds 7% decline in population despite high visibility

Highlights - Preliminary 2020 Point-in-Time Homeless County

2,745 individuals counted, down 7% from 2019’s 2,951

1,702 unsheltered in 2020, from 1,957 in 2019

1,043 sheltered in 2020, from 994 in 2019

47% decrease in transition age youth (18-24) and unaccompanied minor children -- 349 in 2020, from 657 in 2019

16% decrease in chronically homeless, single adults -- 562 in 2020, from 675 in 2019

34% decline in homeless veterans -- 139 in 2020, from 210 in 2019

The annual Point-in-Time count was conducted Feb. 28.

Local service providers and government agencies made significant strides over the past year in housing more homeless people, resulting in a 7% reduction in the overall number of people living on the streets or in temporary shelter in Sonoma County, according to the county’s annual census.

A preliminary report presented to the Board of Supervisors this week shows 2,745 people were tallied during the Feb. 28 point-in-time count, compared with 2,951 a year earlier, a drop of 206 people.

Notable reductions included a dramatic 47% drop in unaccompanied minors and “transition-age youth” ‒ those 18 to 24 years old.

Last year, 540 youths and 117 children, or a total of 657 were encountered by census volunteers. This year, the total was 349, including 297 transition-age youth and 52 children.

Anita Maldonado, chief executive officer for Social Advocates for Youth, or SAY, the primary provider of shelter and services for that population, said $301,000 in state Homeless Emergency Aid Program ‒ part of almost $2 million for youth interventions in the county ‒ allowed the agency to expand from one to five street outreach workers and made a profound difference.

“Forty-seven percent is huge,” she said, “and we think it’s really a credit to be given to the county Board of Supervisors, and their efforts to achieve ”functional zero” homelessness.

There also was a 34% decline in homeless veterans, down to 139 from 210 last year, and a 16% reduction in chronically homeless individuals, from 675 last year to 562 this year, according to the report.

“We’re moving the needle in the right direction,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the largest homeless services provider in the county. “What’s important is the overall trend.”

The findings diverge sharply from the impression left by high-profile homeless encampments that have taken over large public spaces in recent months, most notably the Joe Rodota Trail, which was home to 250 or more people last fall and winter before it was cleared at the end of January in the interest of public health.

More recently, several camps under Highway 101 in downtown Santa Rosa were taken down, though they had been allowed to grow and persist for weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, under guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Experts say progress may have been masked by the visibility and density of such camps, which have grown in size as people have left hidden sites and banded together to live on public land. A local court settlement and subsequent judicial rulings protecting the rights of homeless individuals to sleep in public unless they are offered appropriate alternatives has emboldened some homeless individuals and made it more difficult for public officials to dismantle camps as they did in years past.

But an infusion of emergency state funding, focused street outreach, investments in wrap-around services through permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing of the newly homeless have paid off in measurable reductions in the homeless population, according to the report.

The three-page summary, presented by county Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, interim executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, conveys findings that will be analyzed and reported in far greater detail later this summer, said Michael Gause, homelessness program manager for the commission.

Gause and Robinson were unavailable to discuss the report Tuesday because they were involved in the lengthy board meeting on homelessness.

But others, like Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who has invested himself heavily in the issue of homelessness and was an early advocate of the “housing first” philosophy meant to speed placement in permanent shelter, said the trend line bears out the value of that approach. It prioritizes access to stable shelter before trying to resolve accompanying issues, especially substance abuse and physical and mental health problems.

He noted that Santa Rosa, which traditionally has within its boundaries about two-thirds of Sonoma County’s homeless population, has supported outreach teams that are able to build the kind of trusting relationships necessary to persuade people long on the streets to seek help.

The census, which is required by counties in order to participate in distribution of federal homelessness funds, was delayed a month this year because of the disruption caused by the dispersal of the sprawling Joe Rodota Trail encampment. That flashpoint was a source of significant public outrage – both among people who wanted it gone and those who defended its residents. It also spurred the county to embrace a more aggressive and costly set of shelter and housing solutions, an approach that was redoubled on Tuesday when supervisors agreed to extend indefinitely the operation of Los Guilicos Village, the county’s first-ever managed homeless camp on the edge of Oakmont in eastern Santa Rosa.

When the trail was cleared, 104 people were placed in housing, including 60 who took initial placement in tiny homes at Los Guilicos Village, 35 who went to shelters, four who accepted residential treatment beds and five who had other placements, the preliminary report said.

Those placements are in part responsible for census results that show 38% of the overall homeless population counted this year, or 1,043 people, were in shelter at the time of the count, up from 34% last year. Sixty-two percent, or 1,702, remained unsheltered, down from 66% last year.

The county has made significant progress since 2011, when, during its second-ever homeless census, 4,539 individuals were counted.

The trend continued down from there, but after the North Bay wildfires of 2017 bounced up from 2,835 people to 2,996 in 2018, before dropping slightly last year to 2,951.

The 2,745 count from this year represents the lowest tally in the history of the census, which started locally in 2009.

Holmes said she’s terribly concerned about what may lie on the horizon, however, given the immense economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, business shutdowns and related job losses.

“I think this is going to be a tidal wave of need like we’ve never seen before, and so we need to start bracing ourselves as a community, and we need to get ahead of it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Highlights - Preliminary 2020 Point-in-Time Homeless County

2,745 individuals counted, down 7% from 2019’s 2,951

1,702 unsheltered in 2020, from 1,957 in 2019

1,043 sheltered in 2020, from 994 in 2019

47% decrease in transition age youth (18-24) and unaccompanied minor children -- 349 in 2020, from 657 in 2019

16% decrease in chronically homeless, single adults -- 562 in 2020, from 675 in 2019

34% decline in homeless veterans -- 139 in 2020, from 210 in 2019

The annual Point-in-Time count was conducted Feb. 28.

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