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Sonoma County homeless census shows graying population

Almost a third of the people counted in Sonoma County’s 2020 one-day homeless census were older than 50, reflecting, in part, an increasing number of people who are falling into homelessness as older adults.

They are evidence of a disturbing trend first observed in the county’s 2018 count. This year, 19% of those surveyed said they had become homeless for the first time at age 50 or later.

Overall, 648 individuals older than 55 were counted among Sonoma County unhoused population this year, an increase of 42% from a year earlier.

“This number is going in the wrong direction,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, noting her particular distress over the fact that 22% of older adults reported being in and out of homelessness for at least 30 years.

But Holmes nonetheless found “a lot to celebrate” in a newly released report on the countywide 2020 Point-in-Time Homeless Census, which details the findings of the annual count conducted Feb. 28.

The total of 2,745, first reported in July, is 7% lower than last year’s and the lowest overall count since the first census was concluded in 2009.

Like others, she noted the census captures a single point in time, reflecting only the people count participants can fine on a given morning.

“I think what’s important is the trend,” Holmes said. “Are we moving the needle in the right direction?”

The general answer appears to be “yes,” a result of increasingly refined tools and strategies that focus on coordinated, holistic attention to each individual’s needs and major injections of cash by state and local governments and partners, officials said.

The count was conducted just as the coronavirus was gaining a foothold in the United States, prompting business shutdowns along the length of California and elsewhere that experts fear could lease to increased homelessness in the near future.

Robinson said she hoped there would additional federal stimulus aid and an extension of the state eviction moratorium to help stave off home losses, but service providers such as Holmes say they already have seen an initial wave of people seeking rental assistance, food and other help due to impacts of the pandemic.

Holmes said it usually takes six or 12 months for housing-related crisis to be reflected in homeless rates, but “we know it’s coming.” The first wave of requests for help already has exceeded demand her agency received in the wake of the 2017 Tubbs fire, she said.

“We’re hearing from people who are reaching out for charity for the first time in their lives,” she said. “We’ve got to get a lot bolder looking ahead for how to prevent homelessness down the road.”

When the point-in-time census first started in 2009, 3,247 people were enumerated, followed two years later by a peak 4,539 and then 4,280 in 2013, when the county was still organizing the count every other year.

In 2015, the number dropped to 3,107 and has remained roughly stable, between 2,900 and 3,000 until this year.

Of the 2,745 in this year’s count, 1,043, or 38% were in shelter — the highest percentage since 2009.

Among other things, California’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program, or HEAP, funneled $12 million into the county two years ago, followed by more recent state funding aimed at sheltering and housing those most vulnerable to COVID19.

Locally, county government was faced with a public health emergency that evolved with a sprawling encampment of 250 or more people on the Joe Rodota Trail last winter.

The county invested $11 million in a suite of measures to help shelter and house individuals from the camp, including creating Los Guilicos Village, which had capacity for 60 people in tiny, individual structures.

The county and local municipalities have invested in rapid rehousing, master leasing programs that help chronically homeless people sublease homes and other programs designed to get individuals stably housed. This makes it easier to address challenges related to mental or physical health issues, substance abuse, joblessness or other factors.

“I do think that we’ve transformed the way that we provide services to vulnerable populations,” said Barbie Robinson, director of Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services and the Community Development Commission.

In Santa Rosa, the city housed 304 people last year and 359 the year before that, said Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, one of the county’s lead advocates. “We have stayed consistent with our focus on housing first. We’ve put the dollars there.”

Similarly, Rohnert Park has invested in rapid rehousing for the newly unsheltered over the past two years, contracting with Catholic Charities for outreach and preventive services, Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said.

“Most cities are putting some of their own money in to support the system,” he said.

The long-term trend is a testament to the work of county government, its municipal partners and community-based organizations, officials said.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Schwedhelm sad.

The data also shows continued improvements in targeted, priority subpopulations, including families, veterans, the chronically homeless and transitional-aged youths between the ages of 18 and 24.

That number decreased from 2019 to 2020 by 46%, to 298.

The number of homeless veterans declined by 34%, from 210 individuals in 2019 to 139 in 2020.

Among the chronically homeless — defined by the federal government as an individual or head of household with a disabling condition who has been homeless for a year or more or for four episodes totaling 12 months in the past three years — there was a 25% decrease over the previous year, from 675 to 508. Twenty-six percent more were in shelter than in the prior year.

There were 80 homeless families with children, or a total of 235 family members, enumerated in February, a 9% reduction from the previous year. All but 3% of them were in shelter.

The data clashes with the day-to-day experience of many Sonoma County residents, who often feel they observe more people living outdoors than ever before. Local service providers and officials say that’s in part a result of shifting policies that have brought encampments out of the woods and off the hillsides where they use to persist, making them more visible.

More than a quarter of those surveyed also reported residing in vehicles making for a highly mobile population that moves often, and may give the appearance of being larger than it is.

It may also account for shifts in concentrations reflected in the point-in-time count, which, in Rohnert Park, reached 248 people on Feb. 28, nearly double the 129 individuals counted a year earlier. Several dozen RVs were parked in the Walmart parking lot that morning, though it’s not clear how long they remained.

You can find the 83-page report at sonomacounty.ca.gov/CDC/Homeless-Services/Homeless-Count/.

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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