Sonoma County program to address homelessness, housing for seniors

In a move to help low-income seniors keep their homes and assist those who are homeless, Sonoma County this week launched a $1.4 million program aimed at boosting emergency services and long-term assistance for those struggling in the county’s tight housing market.

The program, under a pilot period through June 2018, includes money for low-income housing subsidies and other rental assistance, assisted living facilities, financial management services and home-sharing that seeks to pair aging adults who have extra space with people in need of housing.

The Board of Supervisors approved the program Tuesday.

“There is an urgent need,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who advocated for the funding earlier this year. “We’re trying to prevent seniors from becoming homeless, and we’re getting frantic calls that they’re being evicted on a weekly basis. People are saying ‘My rent has gone up, and I’m living on Social Security. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’?”

Zane highlighted county data that indicate seniors are facing “the worst rental housing crisis … since Wold War II.” At present, seniors - those 60 and older - represent a quarter of the county’s population, and by 2030, that share is expected to grow to half, according to the Sonoma County Area on Aging.

Of the nearly 3,000 people identified in the county’s 2016 point-in-time homeless count, a quarter were 51 years or older, according to data collected in early January.

A majority of seniors are on fixed incomes and face greater obstacles when served rent increases or eviction notices, said Karen Fies, director of the county’s Human Services Department, one of the local agencies spearheading the initiative.

“We’re creating a system of services for seniors because they are very vulnerable,” Fies said. “Many rely on Social Security for their income, and they no longer can just go out to look for work, so when rents are increasing so much, they can easily become homeless.”

Rents have risen 50 percent in the past five years in Sonoma County, and the rental vacancy rate is around 1 percent. More than 3,900 seniors are on the wait list for a Section 8 rental assistance voucher, according to county data. The wait time is an average of four to six years.

Fies said the goal is to assist at least 100 people through the so-called Senior Homeless Prevention Program. Ten low-income housing vouchers will be reserved for seniors who need rental subsidies. Emergency funds will be available for seniors struggling to pay rent and counselors will provide money management services for seniors struggling to pay bills. Two case managers will also be hired to oversee available safety net services under the program.

The initiative also boosts funding for an ongoing program, launched in 2012 in the aftermath of the recession, which aims to keep seniors in their homes by pairing them with people in search of an affordable room to rent.

“So many people were displaced from their housing, so we decided to connect people who had an income but needed a place to live with people who had a place to live but needed income,” said Mike Johnson, CEO of the Petaluma-based Committee on the Shelterless, which launched the program initially.

“People had big mortgages to pay off and extra rooms in their homes, so we said ‘Why not rent them out?’?”

The home-sharing program, now run by the nonprofit Petaluma People Services with financial assistance from the county, helped 126 seniors remain in their homes last year, said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, a county homeless services manager.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or angela.hart@? ?On Twitter @ahartreports.

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