Sonoma County wildfires fuel first rise in homeless census since 2011
October’s devastating wildfires helped swell Sonoma County’s homeless population for the first time since 2011, raising the count by 6 percent, or 161 people, according to the annual point-in-time census released Friday.
The Feb. 23 street-level survey found a total of 2,996 people experiencing homelessness around the county, compared with 2,835 a year earlier - before the North Bay fires destroyed nearly 5,300 homes countywide.
Five percent of the people contacted reported that fires were the primary cause of their homelessness.
County service providers fear those individuals are merely the first wave in a dramatically increasing rate of homelessness because of fire-related losses, as people of varying means exhaust their financial and social resources in the firestorm’s wake.
The Sonoma County Community Development Commission, whose mission includes promoting safe, affordable housing, will ask county supervisors on Tuesday to declare a homeless state of emergency based on the dire forecast, said Felicity Gasser, the commission’s policy and community liaison.
That step would enable the county to apply for state and federal homeless emergency aid, she said.
“We didn’t see that immediate move of people into shelters or out onto the streets (after the fires), but four months after, we did,” Gasser said. “We are really anticipating that it will continue. We believe that people will be using up their resources, that that wave is going to continue for the next 24 months.”
Gasser and Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s largest homeless services provider, said their expectations are based in large part on fallout in the region from the 2008 economic recession and housing crisis that swept the nation.
Many of those in Sonoma County who were affected held their own for a period of time, until they spent their savings and used up whatever options for temporary shelter they may have had, the homeless advocates said.
“The cycle that typically happens is they’re couch-surfing, staying with family and friends, and eventually that’s not sustainable,” Holmes said.
“And that’s when we see people entering homelessness for the first time, and that was very much what happened with the 2008 financial crisis.”
Already, the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time was up from 24 percent last year to 35 percent in the 2018 census.
But Gasser said her department expects the uptick to come faster and more dramatically than during the recession, as public officials, service providers and residents already are wrestling with what seems to be an intractable problem: A substantial unhoused population, many of whom have serious, unaddressed health and substance-abuse challenges and nowhere to sleep or store their belongings.
The 100-page homeless census report will be presented Tuesday to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, along with strategies proposed for addressing what the Community Development Commission calls a “forecasted homeless emergency.”
The county is required to conduct an annual point-in-time census to qualify for $3.4 million in homeless services funding provided through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But the census also provides some measure of the impact of local homeless services, though the fires are considered a complicating factor this year.
The first count in 2009 revealed 3,247 people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County, with a peak number of 4,539 in 2011. It has been conducted in recent years by Applied Survey Research, which has sought to improve its methods each year, in part by utilizing guides who have experienced homelessness to help census-takers know where to look for people sleeping outside.
Knowledgeable outreach and service providers also contribute.
Days after the field count, surveyors interviewed a representative number of homeless individuals to profile the community and establish demographic details of the overall population.
For the first time this year, Applied Survey Research also conducted telephone interviews with 1,191 randomly selected Sonoma County residents to determine what impact the October firestorm may have had on the local housing situation.
Those interviews revealed that about 4 percent of the county population, or 21,482 people, were temporarily or precariously housed in February and considered vulnerable to becoming homeless - about half because of the fires.
An estimated 8,358 county residents were couch-surfing or doubled up in housing after losing their own homes to the fires, according to the survey.