Subscribe

Spending on homelessness is up 550% in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa during the pandemic. Is it making a difference?

Darren Reed was doing what he could to shelter in place under a freeway overpass in downtown Santa Rosa when contact tracers came looking for him.

A few days earlier, he had shared a Gatorade with a man who later tested positive for the coronavirus. So public health workers moved Reed and his partner, Jennifer Lazewski, out of a growing homeless encampment and into a nearby hotel room to quarantine.

Luckily, Reed didn’t test positive. The 41-year-old tattoo artist from Vallejo, like many unhoused people, has preexisting medical issues, leaving him vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications.

North Bay Q&A

Sonoma County readers asked The Press Democrat how much local governments were spending on homelessness during the pandemic as part of its North Bay Q&A series, which collects and answers readers’ questions about life in the region.

We want to know what you're curious about in Sonoma County. ​What problems do you want us to investigate? What issues need to be explained?

Whether it's a burning question or something that just piqued your curiosity, share it here. We'll work to dig up the answers and share them with you.

Visit pressdemocrat.com/north-bay-qa/ to pose your question and vote on questions submitted by other readers.

At the time in May 2020, Reed was in bad shape after three years sleeping on sidewalks and collecting recyclables to earn money. Because of his condition, the couple were allowed to keep the room once their quarantine was over. They were then moved to another hotel to ride out the rest of the pandemic in safety.

“It was dire for me out there,” Reed said. “I don't think I'd have survived it for much longer.”

Unprecedented spending

Reed and Lazewski are two of the hundreds of homeless residents in Sonoma County who have taken refuge at publicly funded hotel rooms, supervised outdoor camps and other socially distanced settings during the pandemic.

The goal has been to relocate at-risk people from crowded group shelters and encampments to sites where the virus is less likely to spread.

“It’s trying to keep people who are experiencing homelessness safe from COVID,” said Michael Gause, head of homelessness programs for Sonoma County.

Through the first 15 months of the pandemic, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, the two largest local governments, together spent an unprecedented $44 million on housing homeless people at pandemic shelter sites.

That emergency spending ballooned the region’s total expenditure on homelessness to a combined $92.4 million over fiscal 2019-20 and 2020-21 — a more than 550% increase in core homelessness costs compared to the two budget years prior to the pandemic, a monthslong Press Democrat examination of county and city records shows.

From left, Eric Nelson, Kelsey Kirton and Michael Silvato shelter-in-place at their encampment under Highway 101 at College Avenue in Santa Rosa on May 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
From left, Eric Nelson, Kelsey Kirton and Michael Silvato shelter-in-place at their encampment under Highway 101 at College Avenue in Santa Rosa on May 15, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The newspaper compiled those records through requests starting in June. In the case of the county spending, it was spread so widely across different agencies that officials said the numbers did not encompass all county expenditures on homelessness.

The dramatic increase in local spending comes largely as a result of a surge in state and federal dollars funneled to cities and counties across California, where homelessness has either swelled or at least grown more visible amid the state’s intensifying housing crisis. The biggest batch of emergency dollars was tied to the programs aimed at getting homeless people into safe and stable housing during a deadly pandemic.

From March 2020 through June 2021, Sonoma County spent $33.7 million on pandemic shelter sites, according to county estimates. The expenditures included the purchase of two hotels, in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, and the lease of hundreds of rooms in three other lodging sites normally booked by tourists — moves that riled some neighbors concerned about the concentration of unhoused people in their community.

Meanwhile Santa Rosa, where about half of the county’s homeless population lives, spent $7.3 million on pandemic shelter sites, according to city data. The city spent another $3 million to expand its Samuel L. Jones Hall group shelter, the largest in the county.

Through various emergency initiatives, the state and federal government have covered, or are expected to cover, nearly all of those costs.

Where is the pandemic money going? (Sources: Sonoma County and City of Santa Rosa)
Where is the pandemic money going? (Sources: Sonoma County and City of Santa Rosa)

Local officials describe the shelter programs as a success. Of the around 1,100 individual placements at the sites, only a handful of residents tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.

As of Oct. 7, a total of 330 homeless people in the county had tested positive, many of them in group shelters, according to county officials. Almost half of the positive cases stem from a massive outbreak at the Sam Jones shelter in July shortly after it reopened to full capacity, leaving residents infected and two dead.

In all, five homeless people have died of COVID-19 complications in Sonoma County.

In addition to moving unhoused people most susceptible to the virus out of group settings like Sam Jones, officials have come to view hotels and other “noncongregant” sites as long-term solutions to getting people off the streets and into permanent housing.

“This was an experience that taught us people who were unwilling to take emergency (group) shelter were willing to take the noncongregant shelter,” said David Kiff, interim director of the county’s Community Development Commission, its top housing and homelessness agency. “And that's changed a lot of how we approach things.”

With an additional $12 billion in the state budget to alleviate California’s homeless crisis over the next two years, local governments will likely receive even more money to expand the pandemic programs.

“In order to effectively address homelessness we’re going to need ongoing, dedicated funding from the state and federal government. Cities can’t do this on their own.”

But that massive funding boost still amounts to just a one-time investment. It remains an open question how to continue paying for new homeless housing in Sonoma County — a region with some 2,700 unhoused residents and among the highest rates of suburban homelessness in the nation, according to local and federal reports.

In 2020, Sonoma County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to support mental health and homelessness initiatives, but the annual revenue from those receipts, about $25 million, would not be enough to support the housing programs launched during the pandemic, officials said.

“In order to effectively address homelessness we’re going to need ongoing, dedicated funding from the state and federal government,” said Kelli Kuykendall, homeless services manager for Santa Rosa. “Cities can’t do this on their own.”

New strategies to help people off the street

Soon after the pandemic hit in March 2020, cities and counties across the state scrambled to prevent coronavirus outbreaks among their homeless populations.

In Sonoma County, that meant moving unhoused people into Sonoma State University dormitories, rented rooms at the Sandman Hotel and Astro Motel in Santa Rosa, state-provided trailers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, and managed tent camps at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa and Park and Ride commuter parking lot in Guerneville.

Of the 10 noncongregant sites that opened at different points during the pandemic, five are still in operation.

Emergency Homelessness Spending, 2017-2021 (Sources: Sonoma County Community Development Commission, Sonoma County Department of Health Services, Santa Rosa City Manager’s Office and City and County annual budgets)
Emergency Homelessness Spending, 2017-2021 (Sources: Sonoma County Community Development Commission, Sonoma County Department of Health Services, Santa Rosa City Manager’s Office and City and County annual budgets)

From August through November last year, the nonprofit West County Community Services oversaw a 25-tent camp at the Park and Ride lot near downtown Guerneville.

Tim Miller, the organization’s executive director, said some west county homeless people who were wary of group shelters decided to take up residence at the camp.

When the site launched, Miller met regularly with neighbors to address their concerns. Before long, they told him the meetings weren’t necessary because there were so few issues.

“No one in the community had to make a police call and that’s pretty remarkable,” Miller said.

For years, local governments have prioritized more costly homelessness efforts that focused on getting people into permanent housing, rather than immediate solutions to help them off the street. That sent a message to many unhoused people that “we’ll get to you, but not right now,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers.

Thanks in large part to the success of sites like the Guerneville Park and Ride, local officials said, they are warming up to the idea of noncongregant sites as a way to more quickly get people into stable living situations along with managed homeless camps, which could include expanding safe overnight parking lots, an effort Santa Rosa set in motion in June.

“There are other solutions to get people stable and at the same time get them those (permanent housing) services,” Rogers said.

Hotels as permanent housing

As the pandemic progressed and more homeless people entered noncongregant shelters, operators began working to place them in lasting homes.

Caseworkers, despite the challenges of reaching residents remotely because of social distancing concerns, helped some through the often complicated process of securing housing.

By August of this year, 142 residents had moved from the pandemic shelters to permanent homes, according to officials. That’s about 13% of all placements at those sites. (Some residents may have stayed at more than one shelter.)

To get even more people into permanent housing, Gov. Gavin Newsom last summer announced $600 million in state and federal funds for cities, counties and tribal governments to buy and convert hotel rooms into permanent supportive housing for homeless people. Another $147 million was made available a few months later. The funding helped buy 94 housing projects totaling 6,000 units across the state.

That program, called Project Homekey, is an extension of an earlier effort by the state to pay for temporary hotel rooms used as shelter, called Project Roomkey.

Officials and advocates see Homekey as a way to house people who have the most difficulty holding down steady housing — those who are very poor and often require regular medical attention or counseling.

“That’s the way we’re going to solve homelessness in the Bay Area,” said Jennielynn Holmes, program manager at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, the county’s largest homelessness service provider.

Last fall, the state granted Sonoma County about $16 million through Homekey to help buy, renovate and operate the 44-room Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa and the 31-room Sebastopol Inn. The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians also received over $2.5 million to buy the shuttered Economy Inn in Santa Rosa for homeless tribal members.

So far, the two county hotels have been used as temporary shelters with on-site services. But officials plan to remodel the rooms and eventually house around 100 homeless individuals there permanently.

Sonoma County operates the Hotel Azura to house formerly homeless people who are at high risk for COVID-19.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County operates the Hotel Azura to house formerly homeless people who are at high risk for COVID-19. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Last month, Newsom announced an additional $2.75 billion in Homekey funds. Sonoma County officials have begun working with cities including Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma to identify hotels and other sites to potentially convert or build permanent homeless housing. The Rohnert Park City Council last month agreed to apply for a Homekey grant to build a 56-unit project near Rancho Verde Mobile Home Park.

“There’s an excitement and a stirring of what can be possible,” said Tina Rivera, interim director of the county’s Department of Health Services.

Increased visibility

It remains to be seen how much public support there is for any new homeless housing projects in local neighborhoods. But one thing that is clear is Sonoma County residents view homelessness as a deepening quality of life issue.

According to a Press Democrat survey of county voters, 89% of respondents said homelessness has worsened in recent years, while 3% said it improved.

Yet over the past decade, the county appears to have made progress getting people housed. Between 2009 and 2020, the homeless population dropped from 3,247 to 2,745, the lowest count on record, according to Sonoma County’s 2020 one-day homeless census, conducted before the pandemic.

Officials agree the perception that homelessness is getting worse exists because the issue has become more visible in recent years.

Tory Allen secures her belongings onto a cart while being evicted from a homeless encampment at the corner of Fourth Street and College Avenue in Santa Rosa on  June 29, 2021. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Tory Allen secures her belongings onto a cart while being evicted from a homeless encampment at the corner of Fourth Street and College Avenue in Santa Rosa on June 29, 2021. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Tim Barrett, acting head of the department’s downtown enforcement team, said the increased visibility started around five years ago with the construction of the SMART train tracks, as well state mandates to keep local creeks free of pollution. That prompted local authorities to clear homeless people from those areas, often pushing them into residential neighborhoods.

Nearly two-thirds of the county homeless population sleep on the street or in their vehicles, according to the census count.

Barrett also cited sentencing and criminal justice reforms such as Prop. 47, passed in 2014, as reducing consequences for those on the street committing low-level crimes. That has led to “more people moving from out of state to use or possess drugs,” he said.

Researchers say there is little evidence that significant numbers of homeless people have moved to California from other states. According to the 2020 homeless census, 88% of unhoused people lived in Sonoma County before becoming homeless.

Rogers, Santa Rosa’s mayor, pointed to a 2018 federal court decision in a case brought by six homeless plaintiffs in Idaho. That ruling effectively bars cities and counties on the West Coast from clearing most homeless encampments on public property until everyone in the camp is offered temporary shelter.

And without enough beds for all homeless people in Sonoma County, it can take time to prepare to clear large camps.

“The Martin v. Boise decision has really said to local governments in the strongest terms so far, you don’t just get to push away your homeless problem, you have to actually deal with it,” Rogers said.

‘A leap of faith on the part of local governments’

Local officials are confident the state and federal dollars that have come online to combat homelessness over the past year and a half will make a noticeable difference in Sonoma County.

And more money is on the way. On top of the $12 billion in state funds for Project Homekey and other efforts, the Biden administration in September announced a plan to earmark $5 billion in grants for low-income housing development and 70,000 emergency housing vouchers, about 280 of which will go to Sonoma County.

Where is the pandemic money coming from? (Sources: Sonoma County and City of Santa Rosa)
Where is the pandemic money coming from? (Sources: Sonoma County and City of Santa Rosa)

Even so, those are mainly one-time spending plans, without a guarantee of ongoing funding beyond a few years at most.

“It is a little bit of a leap of faith on the part of local governments that the state will step up and continue to fund those services,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins.

At a news conference at the Sebastopol Inn in July, Newsom said the state will look to the federal government to help fund any fledgling programs.

“We expect to and intend to bridge these commitments with additional federal support, and our advocacy at the federal level is second to none,” Newsom said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, shakes hands with Sen. Mike McGuire as he is introduced for his news conference announcing new homelessness funding at the Elderberry Commons project in Sebastopol on July 19, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, shakes hands with Sen. Mike McGuire as he is introduced for his news conference announcing new homelessness funding at the Elderberry Commons project in Sebastopol on July 19, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County officials conceded they may also have to spend more on homelessness using locals funds.

“Homelessness costs money, you’re either going to spend money on housing the homeless and ensuring they have shelter, or you’re going to spend on police and emergency care.”

One option is Measure O, the voter-approved sales tax county voters expected to raise around $25 million a year over 10 years for mental health and homeless services. The county has also set aside $2 million in local dollars that can be used for temporary shelter sites.

Adrian Covert, vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a regional think tank, said the region’s high cost of housing is the main reason why people become and stay homeless. Without significant investments in efforts like Project Homekey, he said, the problem will only fester.

“Homelessness costs money. You’re either going to spend money on housing the homeless and ensuring they have shelter, or you’re going to spend on police and emergency care,” he said.

'Grateful on so many levels’

Reed, the formerly homeless tattoo artist staying at the Hotel Azura, one of the county’s Homekey sites, is aware there’s no promise it will remain paid for into the future.

“I still feel like it still could end any day,” he said. “Once COVID is done, what's going to fund these programs then?”

But there’s no denying Reed is now in a better position to put his life back together. He and his partner Lazewski first fell into homelessness after their rented house burned down in the 2017 fires. They spent the next three years on the street.

“It was just the two of us. And we did it moving every day, every morning,” Lazewski said.

A man walks outside The Sebastopol Inn in Sebastopol on Aug. 3, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
A man walks outside The Sebastopol Inn in Sebastopol on Aug. 3, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Since getting into the Azura, Reed got a job working as a caretaker at other shelters in the county. He’s thankful for the opportunity to give back to others who’ve been homeless. And he’s been able to put some money away and start looking for a place of his own for him and Lazewski.

“I'm so grateful to be here on so many levels,” Reed said from his top-floor room overlooking the downtown neighborhood where the couple used to set up camp each night. “It’s so spiritual to me.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two dollar figures specifying combined homelessness spending by Sonoma County and Santa Rosa and one figure singling out Santa Rosa’s individual spending have been revised to better reflect rounding conventions and provide more accurate sums.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette