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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.

“It takes a village,” Murphy said. “It took four different organizations to make this work.”

Some of the at-risk young people took an active role in shaping how the aid campaign unfolded. Alejandra Gomez, 21, was one of several who stepped up to share her insights.

“(Murphy) really pushed for me and other youth to be involved,” Gomez said. While speaking in front of social workers and nonprofit administrators was intimidating at first, she said, “I was using this opportunity as a way for me to really gain my confidence.”

Gomez, who voices deep pride in her Ojibwa, Cree and Chicana heritage, said she learned to see the value of her input, speaking about the difficulties she experienced growing up in and then aging out of California’s foster care system as a young woman of color.

Gomez wants to work as an advocate for foster youth at the state or federal level, to better a system that offered her little support.

“I’m going to make it easier and I’ll be an example to other foster youth that we can do it,” she said.

Bonifacio, who said she left her parents’ home in Solano County over disagreements about her gender identity, hopes to return to cosmetology school, something she had started previously. Though her time in the youth shelter and shared home was stressful, she was grateful that help existed in her time of need. She never was on the streets.

“I feel like throughout this whole process I’ve been very lucky with everything,” Bonifacio said.

It’s important to reach young people like Bonifacio before they become chronically homeless and begin to suffer from the trauma that can accompany such an experience, officials said.

Martha Cheever, director of the Sonoma County Housing Authority, said that stringent requirements, including the narrow federal definition of chronic homelessness, can prevent young people especially from finding needed services.

“The bigger piece is to see how we can make things more accessible,” she said. It can be difficult for young people moving from one friend’s couch to another or to different foster homes to hang onto Social Security cards, birth certificates and other documents that are often required to receive housing vouchers. That’s one example of things the group decided it would like to see change.

“We’re really kind of looking at it as early intervention to try to prevent adulthood chronic homelessness,” Cheever said.

Though the challenge did not meet its overall target for housing at-risk youth, Robinson said the groundwork that the group laid is going to provide for a longer-term impact that will help more people for years to come.

Aid groups need to connect with more landlords to provide increased housing options for homeless youth, she said. Too many vulnerable youth are turned away from housing or are unable to secure it with their Section 8 vouchers, officials said.

“I think we’ve created the blueprint broadly,” Robinson said.

“The availability of housing is a challenge,” she added. “And transforming perceptions of who the population is and what their needs are is really critical and important.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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