Volunteers take to streets to count Sonoma County’s homeless population
Dawn had just broken Friday as Randy Clay strode purposefully down a paved trail in Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park.
Red-winged blackbirds performed a free concert in a marsh to his right. In the water to his left, two swans lazily circled.
But Clay fixed his gaze directly ahead.
“Where the trail bends up here, you can see an island,” he said. “I know a guy who stays there sometimes. He’s pretty, uhh, adventurous.”
Why does that man stay there?
“When he’s out there, nobody can really get to him, and if they try, he knows they’re coming,” said Clay, the no-nonsense lead outreach specialist for the Mary Isaak Homeless Center in Petaluma.
Clay and his team of three were part of a small army of over 150 volunteers, outreach workers and paid guides fanning out over Sonoma County in the predawn hours, looking to count the region’s homeless population.
Participants helping with the effort reported to deployment sites in Guerneville, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Of critical importance to the success of the entire enterprise: coffee was served at each.
Employing “blitz and survey” tactics — conducting a census by a large team over a very short period of time — small teams proceeded to their designated areas. The squads were comprised of volunteers, outreach workers, program staff and “lived experience guides,” as the research firm referred to members who’d previously been homeless.
The expertise of those guides is critical in locating as many homeless people as possible. Their participation also gives volunteers an opportunity to get to know them, and hear their stories, over the five hours they’re together.
“I think that’s really valuable,” said Michael Gause, the Ending Homelessness Program Manager for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.
Last year’s Point-in-Time count tallied 2,893 people homeless residents, a 5% increase over the number of homeless people identified in the census taken in February 2020 — a month before the coronavirus pandemic hit. (The 2021 count was canceled due to that outbreak.)
While 5% was “still too much,” said Gause, “I think it could’ve been much worse without a lot of the COVID emergency aid, which made a big difference.”
With emergency funds surging in from both the state and federal governments, Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa together spent unprecedented sums on this stubborn, complex problem. That included tens of millions of dollars to help launch safe-parking sites, temporary pandemic shelter programs and long-term supportive housing.
“COVID has obviously settled down a lot, we’re back to more like normal, so I’m curious what things will look like this year,” said Gause on the eve of the count. “I don’t’ really have a sense of that yet.”
The value of this annual canvassing is much more than a single number. When the full study is released later this year, it will include survey data based on interviews with hundreds of local homeless people.
“The count is a critical tool for the work we do,” said Jennielynn Holmes, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa. “It helps show us where need to prioritizing funds, resources, attention, strategies.”
The Point-in-Time Count is also required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for jurisdictions hoping to get federal funding related to homelessness. The Sonoma County Continuum of Care gets $3.9 million annually in federal funding.
Rather than “just check the box,” said Holmes — meaning, to do the minimum to qualify for those HUD funds — Sonoma County performs the census “in a really high quality way that also gives us information that shows us how to invest our limited resources.”
With the disappearance of much of that emergency COVID funding — particularly funds providing rent assistance, she said — “my worry is that we will some increased numbers” of homeless in 2023. “I hope I’m wrong.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at email@example.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.