Sonoma County’s regional homeless agency reboots after governance setbacks and infighting
Two years after elected leaders in Sonoma County created a new regional board to better coordinate local efforts to tackle the homelessness crisis and disburse more than $14 million in aid and service funding, that panel has been forced to reboot over problems with the way it was originally chartered.
The entity, known previously as Home Sonoma County, was reconstituted after disbanding in September in the wake of a determination by the County Counsel’s Office that its governing board, called the Leadership Council, was illegitimately structured when it was reformed in 2018.
The new body — operating under an old name, the Continuum of Care Board — met for the first time Dec. 7 and again on Dec. 9. It reviewed all of the non-funding decisions made by its predecessor over the past two years and elected new leadership.
It’s the third version of the board in as many years, and a setback that has hampered comprehensive efforts to combat local homelessness, which on a per capita basis ranks the higher in Sonoma County than in all other similar suburban parts of the nation, according to a federal study.
But now that the board is official again, it’s time to reset, acknowledge past struggles and work together on improving the county’s system of homeless care, said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa’s chief programs officer and the new board’s vice chairwoman.
Holmes said she felt "a lot of hope and excitement moving forward“ after the new 15-member board was formed earlier this month.
“I’ve been doing this work over 12 years,” Holmes said. “I’ve never seen the quality of candidates that we got on Monday.”
To some observers, though, the effort has been hindered by its heavy reliance on Sonoma County staff for administrative support and strategic direction. They say the new agency needs to be more assertive about its independence from the county if it’s to overcome its governance issues.
“The CoC Board needs to understand its autonomous nature, and manage accordingly,” said Teddie Pierce, a former county staffer and current independent homeless systems consultant.
Its chief allied agency in county government, the Community Development Commission, focused on homelessness and affordable housing, has had its own leadership struggles during the same period. It is on its third executive director in as many years.
Holmes said she hadn’t been focused on the issue of autonomy as much as upcoming deadlines and other challenges. A mandatory annual charter review is set for January, and the annual homeless population census, which will be modified because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is set for late February.
The board will have to be flexible out of the gate to balance its long-term strategy with the immediate emergency of the pandemic, Holmes said. Part of that will be anticipating a wave of new pandemic-related homelessness expected six to 12 months from now.
“How do we get ahead of it?” she said.
The Continuum of Care is a local program overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that as acts a clearinghouse for federal and state funding and also can help set high-level policy goals. The appointed board is the local decision-making body that oversees the program.
Officials in late 2018 rebranded the local Continuum of Care as Home Sonoma County, governed by the Leadership Council that included elected and appointed officials from the county, Santa Rosa, Petaluma and other cities and service providers from across the area.
The move stemmed from officials’ desire to improve homeless policymaking and funding decisions among local governments, which previously was found to be “so fragmented that a significant restructuring is required,” according to a county consultant’s report.
Home Sonoma County was formed at a critical time. The state had just approved a $500 million emergency program for dealing with the homelessness crisis, resulting in an influx of cash to Sonoma County, found to have one of the the highest per capita homeless populations among largely suburban counties, according to a HUD analysis in January.
Six months after its reformation, Home Sonoma County received the Board of Supervisors’ approval in 2019 for its $14.1 million spending plan, including more than $12 million in one-time state funds. Officials said the aid package — which included funding for homeless shelters, outreach efforts and structural improvements — was poised to help cut local homelessness by up to 20%.
The county’s most recent homeless census, conducted in February after the breakup of the massive encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, showed a 7% drop to 2,745 people, the lowest mark since 2009.