Sonoma County preparing overhaul of homeless services
Sonoma County is taking steps toward a complete overhaul in the way homeless people are placed in temporary shelters, with officials sharpening their focus on getting the most imperiled people off the streets while ending the first-come, first-served practice that has long allocated overnight space at shelters countywide.
The shift would affect about 1,000 beds clustered mainly in Santa Rosa, as well as others in Petaluma, Sonoma Valley and the west county. Most of the county’s roughly 20 shelters are run by 10 nonprofit organizations that receive the majority of their funding from the county, as well as state and federal sources.
At present, most of the operations require a person seeking shelter to show up or call in to secure a spot. But county officials say that system disproportionately helps the least needy and displaces the sickest people who routinely sleep on the streets, in parks and along creek paths at night.
“We’re prioritizing people who can navigate our bureaucratic system, as opposed to people with the most need,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, the county’s homeless coordinator. “People are dying because of it.”
The new approach would instead take in homeless people based on a ranking system that accounts for the length of time someone has been homeless and the number and seriousness of their medical problems.
The decision on who is taken in at shelters — and ultimately a wider range of homeless houing — would fall to a team outreach workers led by a nonprofit organization to be selected by the county. The Board of Supervisors already has endorsed the overhaul and is set to approve the $311,000 contract with selected nonprofit in November.
The approach has been mostly welcomed by homeless service providers, though some of their representatives have voiced concerns that the reforms could shift the intake focus in a way that leaves other homeless people out in the cold.
“Making sure everyone has equal access is important,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, one of the largest shelter operators. “For people who are homeless for the first time, they might not be the most vulnerable but they still need some sort of short-term intervention so they don’t end up long-term homeless.”
Abramson, who is guiding the overhaul, met Monday with representatives from about a half-dozen organizations vying for the one-year county contract.
The initiative is part of a national movement to provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless — adults with disabling conditions who have been homeless for a year or more, or who have become homeless four times within three years. The idea is to target homeless people with multiple health problems, then connect them with services ranging from a primary care doctor and food aid, to substance abuse counseling. Supporters say the approach could save taxpayers millions of dollars a year in emergency room visits and jail costs.
Last year, the county tallied 4,280 homeless people, and officials estimate that 45 percent of those people have at least three health conditions. As hundreds of people pack the county’s limited shelters, thousands more are forced to the streets, growing sicker, officials said.
“It galls me that clients with complicated health problems like mental illnesses and HIV cannot get inside,” Abramson said. “Too often, health problems prevent people from showing up when asked to. So many don’t have access to a cellphone and can’t make phone calls, and there are problems physically getting around. We’re trying to flip that around and get them inside.”