Gullixson: Lost in Paradise II: The next step in confronting homelessness may be the toughest

If Sonoma County is at a crossroads on homelessness, Pete Mogannam of 4th Street Deli and Market has the best view of it.|

If Sonoma County is at a crossroads on homelessness, Pete Mogannam of 4th Street Deli and Market has the best view of it.

Despite all the positive initiatives launched in recent months to trim the number of unsheltered in our midst, Mogannam is seeing something different from where he stands at his cash register overlooking Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square.

“In my 20 years here, I have never seen it this bad,” he said. “The aggressive panhandling, the screaming, the foul language, this is the problem.”

These are the outliers, the chronically homeless who often intimidate those who come downtown to dine and shop. They are individuals who, more often than not, have mental health and/or addiction issues and don’t respond well to the communal living environments of traditional homeless shelters. When they get out of control, Mogannam calls the police, and things get better for a couple of hours or a couple of days. But then the problems start again.

“I try to befriend them,” he said. Sometimes he does so out of kindness. Sometimes it’s kind of an insurance policy in hopes one of them doesn’t throw a rock through his window. “But I’m not a social worker,” he said. “I have a business to run.”

Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, understands the problem. ?As of last year, she said, ?Sonoma County had seen a ?27 percent decline in the number of homeless since 2013 due in part to an improving economy and in part to local initiatives that have resulted in the county housing “more people than ever before.” But despite those accomplishments, “we definitely have seen an increase in visibility,” she said.

Although those who cause problems account for less than 10 percent of the unsheltered population, she said, “For (Pete), this is the face of homelessness.”

Holmes and others who work closely with those on the streets say the increased visibility is due in part to the work on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line, which has resulted in the rousting of dozens if not hundreds of homeless individuals along the railroad tracks through Marin and Sonoma counties.

So what’s to be done? Addressing this aspect of homelessness - the last mile, so to speak - won’t be easy. This will be one of the topics of discussion on Wednesday when Holmes and other community leaders take part in Lost in Paradise II, a panel discussion on taking steps to confront homelessness in and around Santa Rosa.

The forum is a follow-up on a similar community discussion that The Press Democrat sponsored two years ago. At that time, the focus was on the rapidly rising number of people under the age of 24 who were living on the streets. Preliminary results of the latest homeless census are expected to be out later this week, hopefully by Wednesday. But Holmes says her perception is that the number of young people without housing has gone down significantly, due in part to the opening of the Dream Center at the old Warrack Hospital site on Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road. The center, operated by Social Advocates for Youth, officially opened in March and eventually will be providing temporary and permanent housing for up to 63 people while also serving as a center ?for job training. Roughly 250 people, from ages ?14 to 24, have already been trained there.

Meanwhile, other county efforts are making a difference as well, including providing safe parking areas for homeless to sleep in their cars and trucks. The county also is exploring an initiative to house homeless in tiny houses. These are part of an overall initiative by ?the Board of Supervisors that includes creating ?2,000 permanent housing units for homeless people in the next decade with a goal of ending homelessness by 2025. Building those units would cost ?$110 million.

Where that is going to come from is anybody’s guess. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s based on a sound premise. It stems from the county’s “housing first” philosophy, the notion that before any real work can begin in addressing the social or medical challenges facing a homeless individual or family, permanent shelter must be found. Holmes says the success that the county has been experiencing over the past two years in getting individuals and families into homes, assisting them in finding jobs and helping them create stability in their lives shows that this philosophy works.

Perhaps the best example, she said, is the early success of the Palms Inn in Santa Rosa, a first-of-its-kind housing program for homeless people, including veterans. Last week, the Palms Inn, on Santa Rosa Avenue near Todd Road, reached capacity. It now has 138 residents in ?104 rooms. Sixty percent of the residents are veterans. Holmes says it also celebrated its first transition of a tenant to permanent housing outside of the former hotel. “It’s kind of exciting,” she said.

As the Dream Center has helped reduce the number of young adults who are homeless, Holmes said, the Palms Inn “is a great first step” toward addressing the kind of homeless problem that Pete Mogannam and others are seeing downtown.

But the problem does not end with a roof. “When someone moves into a home like this, that’s when the real work begins,” Holmes said. That’s when they can get the help they need with medical issues, mental health concerns and other issues. “Trying to help someone’s mental health issues before they get into a home is almost impossible,” she said.

With the backing of the supervisors and the city, the transformation of the former hotel into housing happened quickly. It shows what can be done when the community puts its best minds and efforts to work. The Palms Inn is ?not cheap. It will cost ?$1.9 million a year to operate. But most of that will come from state and federal housing subsidies.

In the meantime, a community of its own has begun to take shape at the Palms Inn, according to Holmes. Residents have come together to work on community gardens, plant flowers, create artwork for the hotel’s lobby and even relocate an apple tree that had been rescued from an abandoned community garden. “It’s been awesome to watch,” Holmes said. “They’ve really become a support network for one another.”

Holmes said she’s been getting calls from officials in other areas asking how they can replicate what’s been done at the Palms. “We really want this to be a model,” she said. But not just for other areas.

Meanwhile, those downtown continue to have a different view of what is happening with homelessness. As Pete Mogannam and I are talking about the problem, his son, Jerry, comes over and alerts us that a tall man with a fishing hat - one of the regulars at the square - had just come into the store, filled up a large soda cup and walked out without paying. We all look out the window to see him walking in the square.

Pete sighs. It’s not even ?9 a.m. yet.

Does he think the problem has gotten worse because of the work on the SMART tracks? He shrugs. “The question I have is, is San Rafael having the same problem? What about Petaluma?” he said.

The problem, he fears, is that the homeless are coming to Santa Rosa because they know this is where the services are. “Maybe we are being too nice,” he said. “I don’t know.”

He returns to his register and rings up a paying customer.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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