Sonoma County organizations take up challenge to confront youth homelessness
The day in January that Aria Bonifacio moved into her Rohnert Park apartment was an end as well as a beginning. It meant that her time of shuttling between temporary quarters in Sonoma County was over.
“In that moment I was trying to not focus on what I was feeling and just focus on getting done what I needed to get done,” said Bonifacio, 23. Even a few weeks later, she said, “it still hasn’t hit me yet that I have my own place.”
The fresh start — after being laid off from her job at Santa Rosa Junior College — came courtesy of a federal housing voucher secured with help from Sonoma County officials and support from a TLC Child and Family Services social worker who played a key role in her transition out of a shared house run by the nonprofit, where she stayed for almost a year.
Bonifacio is one of nearly 30 teenagers and young adults that TLC Child and Family Services, the county’s Housing Authority and about four dozen other local agencies and nonprofits have helped to procure permanent housing and needed support in recent months. Since the fall, the coalition has worked together on goals aimed at dramatically reducing youth homelessness in Sonoma County.
The 100 Day Challenge, as the effort is called, wraps up Friday. Over its course, the coalition will have housed about half of its target number of 65 teenagers and young adults. The group also worked to change the ways that they partner with each other in order to more effectively serve that population even after the initiative ends.
“The work doesn’t stop now,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director. “We’ve just started.”
Members of Sonoma County’s 100 Day Challenge decided to focus efforts on housing “transition-age youth,” those aged 18 through 24, which encompasses the period when many children exit the foster care system, have left or run away from the homes they grew up in, or are leaving juvenile detention, for example.
In that age group, 245 individuals were found to be homeless in the county’s 2020 street-level census. That was down from both the 2019 count of 540 and the five-year high of 630 in 2015, according to county figures. People aged 18 to 24 make up 11% of the county’s overall homeless population. They also were using shelters at among the lowest rates of any homeless people, the census found, with 82% living on the streets or in vehicles, camps or abandoned buildings.
“They’re the hardest to find housing for,” said Anita Maldonado, CEO of Social Advocates for Youth, another partner in the challenge. A short supply of both available housing and landlords willing to accept vouchers and stringent definitions of homelessness precluding some youth from receiving certain types of aid all contribute, she said.
“It starts at the local level,” Maldonado said. “I think that’s the way change happens. We realize it’s going to take well beyond 100 days.”
Robinson kicked off the effort in mid-2020, tailoring the initiative to a 100-day window developed the Rapid Results Institute and the United States Interagency Council. Several communities across the country have completed the challenge in recent years.
Sonoma County’s initiative put particular emphasis on serving youth of color and LGBTQ youth, who are, according to research, often vulnerable to experiencing both increased rates of homelessness and discrimination within support systems.
The work involves improving communication between the agencies, to ensure that youth can access services to housing, and also mental health and physical well-being, Robinson said.
“It’s not enough to just get someone into a shelter or into a house,” she said. “What are the other services and supports that are needed that will allow them to be successful in that placement and to be successful in their communities? How do we improve that?”
Meghan Murphy, a social worker with the Community Support Network, said that one of the most important benefits from the rhythm of regular meetings with other partners was her growing awareness of resources available to help youth.
“It’s been really wonderful just to be able to have so much support available,” she said. “I think coming together and saying, ‘here’s where I got stuck,’ and then addressing these things has helped us figure out our logjams.”
A young woman who Murphy worked with during the challenge, for example, was able to secure a Section 8 housing voucher with help from the Sonoma County Housing Authority, she said. The Interfaith Shelter Network, which connects people to emergency shelter, mental health resources and needed supplies, helped secure funds to cover the cost of the deposit.