Sonoma County sets 5-year goal to create 1,200 new units for homeless housing

The housing goal is included in a newly released 95-page strategic plan that outlines more than 90 steps for the county and its nonprofit partners to follow.|

Sonoma County government is aiming to add up to 1,200 housing units to take in homeless people over the next five years as part of an ambitious new course to address rising homelessness in the region.

The housing goal is included in a newly released 95-page strategic plan that outlines more than 90 steps for the county and its nonprofit partners to follow.

The estimated cost of the combined steps is not pegged in the strategic plan, but will come in a separate document focused on carrying out the recommendations, county officials said.

The vision comes as the county and Santa Rosa saw an unprecedented surge in pandemic-era spending to address rising homelessness, up 5% since 2020, according to results from 2022 point-in-time count.

It also comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has put greater pressure on local governments to set more ambitious goals to curb homelessness. The administration late last year threatened to delay or withhold key funding if those higher goals weren’t set.

The new homelessness blueprint was spearheaded by the Continuum of Care, a coalition of local governments and providers that oversees the regional response, and people who have experienced homelessness.

“It only works if you have that level of involvement,” said Michael Gause, the county’s ending homelessness manager. “We want everybody not to just see it as a strategic plan, but as their strategic plan.”

Expanding housing

The county has committed to creating 1,000 permanent supportive housing units and 200 interim housing units by 2027.

To reach that goal the county is aiming to add 200 permanent supportive housing units each year over the five-year period, and 100 temporary, non-congregate shelter beds each year for the first two years, said Dave Kiff, Sonoma County’s homeless services division director.

Some of those units planned for this year include state-funded Project Homekey sites and Caritas Village in Santa Rosa.

“If we want to really end homelessness we have to build more permanent supportive housing,” said Jennielynn Holmes, CEO of Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, one of the primary homeless services providers in Sonoma County. “That’s why the plan calls for 75% permanent housing and 25% interim.”

In 2022, the county had 1,051 permanent supportive housing beds, 402 rapid rehousing beds, 371 transitional housing beds and 886 emergency shelter beds, according to the strategic plan.

Beyond the construction of new housing, the push for more permanent supportive housing includes finding options in the county’s existing housing stock by securing leases and working with landlords, said Gause.

Moving people through the network of housing and care — from interim housing to permanent supportive housing and on — has proved a challenge.

“Once people go through our permanent supportive housing program or rapid rehousing program there’s nowhere for them to go with that voucher,” said Margaret Sluyk, chief executive officer of Reach for Home, a Healdsburg nonprofit group.

Sluyk stressed the need for more education of how the voucher system works, adding the voucher system is “basically guaranteed rent” and comes with a case manager to support the tenant and landlord.

What to look for in 2023

The county has committed to:

  • Add 300 housing units — temporary and permanent supportive — this year.
  • Replace the system used to assess need and find housing for individuals. In doing so, officials have acknowledged the current system is faulted by racial bias.
  • Merge lists used across the region to keep track of people experiencing homelessness into one single list. This will accompany a move to “subregional work,” meaning service providers will consider factors including proximity to work, social network and schools when placing people in housing and arranging services.
  • Improve communication with the public.
  • Strengthen existing supportive services by bolstering staff, mitigating case loads and other measures.

What homeless leaders and providers say about new the plan

“The plan talks about regular check-ins to make sure we’re accomplishing what was suggested. Any plan like this too is iterative. If we find that things need to be adjusted after year one or year two, this plan certainly allows for that.” — Dave Kiff, Sonoma County’s homeless services division director.

“It is a large plan, it is a lot to tackle. But at the same time it’s all necessary and we have a really collaborative group of people trying to jump in and make this happen.” — Margaret Sluyk, chief executive officer of Reach for Home, a local nonprofit in Healdsburg.

Addressing racial bias

The county has found that the system it uses to track housing accommodations is biased against people of color. The tool is used across the country, and awareness of its pitfalls with racial bias is growing, Kiff said.

“It can jeopardize the housing placement of Black residents and (Indigenous) residents,” said Kiff. “And in our system those populations are overrepresented in our homeless population.”

Black people make up 6% of the county’s homeless population, compared to 2% of the county’s overall population and Indigenous people make up 9% of the homeless population compared to 2% of the overall population, according to the new report.

Hispanic/Latino households, meanwhile, were homeless for an average of 136 days — 19 more days than the county’s overall average, the report said.

The county is developing a new tool to negate racial bias in the placement system and is aiming to implement the tool by the end of the year.

“If you’re Black and homeless in Sonoma county you should have the same shot,” Kiff said.

He added that equity would look like homeless people of color having a better shot at housing.

Bolstering mental health services and other support

Holmes, Kiff, Gause and Sluyk all stressed that housing alone will not resolve homelessness. The plan also focuses on strengthening and expanding support services.

“Housing vouchers are one of the most important tools we have in reducing homelessness but it has to be paired with support services,” Holmes said.

Those services include providing case managers, substance abuse treatment services and behavioral health services, Holmes added.

Sluyk said Reach for Home is in the process of hiring an additional case manager and hopes to bring in a mental health professional and another case manager if funding allows.

“Without the supportive services, once people get to housing it’s not going to be as successful,” said Sluyk. “We need to get our ratios down, we need to pay people more.”

Funding it all

With the strategic plan in place, the Continuum of Care is now finalizing its funding plan.

“We know what capacity our system should have in order to reach functional zero, now how to do we fund it?” said Kiff.

Sonoma County spends about $19 million annually on homeless services funding, while the county’s nine cities combined spend about $11.6 million, according to the Continuum of Care.

Nongovernmental groups account for another chunk of local spending.

The county, cities and nonprofits turn to range of sources to support those programs.

Measure O, the quarter-cent sales tax approved by Sonoma County voters in 2020 to support homeless and mental health services, began generating revenue in April 2021 and is expected to generate about $25 million annually for countywide use.

Other funding sources come from the state, private sources and federal government, Kiff said.

The Continuum of Care Board must finalize the funding plan before sending it to the Board of Supervisors for approval. The Continuum of Care Board is set to consider the funding plan on Feb. 16.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

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