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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.

Governance stumbles

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.

This summer, Barbie Robinson, the county health services director who also now leads the Community Development Commission, proposed a further restructuring of the affiliated Leadership Council to add more seats for cities and towns across Sonoma County. The move would better position Home Sonoma County to “guide countywide efforts to end homelessness” and ensure that county staffers could “provide a successful backbone to the Leadership Council,” according to county documents.

Robinson’s proposed reform would have addressed the desire for better representation voiced by Windsor, Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Cloverdale and Cotati over the summer in letters to the county.

Before Robinson’s push for changes could gain any serious traction, though, board members sought a legal opinion that scuttled the proposal and eventually led to the downfall of the board itself after problems snowballed through the second half of 2020.

Sonoma County Park Rangers speak with a homeless man speaks about his plans to relocate from the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Park Rangers speak with a homeless man speaks about his plans to relocate from the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

What went wrong

This summer, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury released the results of its self-initiated investigation into the county’s homeless system of care. The report was scathing about the government stumbles amid the homeless crisis. The grand jury devoted significant attention to the Joe Rodota Trail encampment, where as many as 250 people lived in 2019 through early 2020 before Sonoma County rushed through a $12 million plan to house campers and clear the trail in January.

The grand jury looked at the role of Home Sonoma County and found that its board “never discussed a strategy to address the encampment on the JRT” prior to December 2019 despite a dramatic increase in trail residents dating back to July, according to the grant jury’s report.

The Leadership Council set up no special or extra meetings to address the trail as the number of campers grew, the grand jury found, before finally allocating $220,000 toward the crisis in December 2019. Grand jury interview subjects characterized the Leadership Council and its advisers — a panel of service providers, housing developers and advocates — as “inefficient, ineffective, understaffed, and slow to act,“ according to the jury’s report, which was formally released in early August.

The report came on top of other problems, including an abusive interruption of a board meeting in July to the airing of nagging grievances among smaller cities who lacked a seat at the Leadership Council.

The offensive interruption came in July in the form of racist comments made and aired by unknown callers at a public Zoom meeting of the Leadership Council, which opted to cancel the meeting. The intrusion rattled officials, including several leaders who are people of color, while also delaying action on strategic planning and Robinson’s proposed board redesign.

A hate crimes investigation by the Santa Rosa Police Department in coordination with the FBI traced the intrusion to overseas computer users but has been stalled for months without any arrests, said Lt. Dan Marincik.

The same month, a coalition of service providers, advocates and elected officials sounded an alarm about “significant concerns of how the homeless system of care is being administered” in a letter to county officials. Among their concerns were the lack of strategic direction and the failure of county staff to communicate important information. Instead, coalition members “regularly read in the newspaper about key decisions affecting us or our clients without any involvement or prior discussion,” according to the letter.

County Supervisors Susan Gorin and Lynda Hopkins, in an August reply, chalked up the “recent drop-off in communication” to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on staff demands. They also rejected the letter’s contention that Robinson’s bid to reform the Leadership Council came without notice. Sonoma County remained the sole local financial supporter of the regional homeless initiative, they noted, providing at least $200,000 a year to act as its administrative backbone.

“The weaknesses of this kind of financial structure are exposed all the more during a time of funding and staffing shortages such as we now face,” the supervisors wrote.

Robinson challenged the notion that communication breakdowns were solely her responsibility, arguing similar issues existed prior to her tenure leading the Community Development Commission, which began in January. She also said the COVID-19 pandemic has cut into how much time her staff have been able to devote to homelessness.

“I will acknowledge the fact, that in responding to COVID, that work has been prioritized over other work, and we are working diligently and hard to get back on track to manage our day-to-day responsibilities,” Robinson said in an interview last week.

The County Counsel’s Office, involved at the behest of Home Sonoma County board members to weigh in on the proposed restructuring, delivered its verdict on Sept. 24. It found the Leadership Council’s late 2018 formation void for procedural reasons, and it called on the group to disband and reform.

The dissolution came before the Leadership Council issued any formal response to the claims in the grand jury’s stinging report.

Starting over

Now, the Continuum of Care Board is back to the way it was before the rebranding in late 2018, leaving it with 15 members who were newly elected or re-elected in an inaugural meeting Dec. 7.

The new chairman, Ben Leroi, is serving as part of Sonoma County’s Continuum of Care for the first time, though he has a background in working to address homelessness, as he sits on the board of Petaluma-based service provider Committee on the Shelterless. He said he hoped the new effort could pick up where the scuttled initiative left off.

“Right now what we need is alignment to the extent possible,” said Leroi, the special population programs director at Santa Rosa Community Health. “I wouldn’t want all that great work to go to waste.”

Besides voting for a chair and vice chair, one of the new board’s earliest debates was what to do with the Leadership Council’s past two years of actions.

County staff on Dec. 9 asked the new board to ratify all non-funding decisions the old board made since December 2018. Some board members voiced transparency concerns, noting that they’d only received the list of prior actions a few hours before the Wednesday meeting and that the list wasn’t readily available to community members wishing to comment.

“The public doesn’t really get a chance to weigh in and feel participatory in this process,” said board member Kevin McDonnell, a Petaluma councilman.

Bill Carter, a board member who runs the county health department’s behavioral health division, countered by suggesting the new board had better things to do than quibble over such bureaucratic steps.

“I worry that in our first meeting we’re getting bogged down in procedural stuff that really is not substantive,” Carter said. “It’s not why we’re here.”

But board member Don Schwartz, the assistant city manager for Rohnert Park, said more attention to procedure was necessary given the previous board’s invalidation.

“We are going back two years because i’s and t’s were not dotted and crossed,” Schwartz said. “... I don’t want to be in any kind of legal jeopardy.”

Eventually, the board solved the issue by passing a motion to “accept” the past actions, not to “ratify” them. County staff subsequently shared documents from HUD showing that a formal ratification wasn’t necessary.

Santa Rosa’s outgoing mayor, Tom Schwedhelm, who was the chairman of the former Leadership Council, remains a member of the new board as a councilman and said he’s optimistic it has resolved its bureaucratic issues.

“The Leadership Council never got established well enough that it really could be the lead agency for homelessness,” Schwedhelm said. “My hope is the new CoC can take this role.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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