Sonoma County preparing overhaul of homeless services

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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.”

At present, the wait for space in shelter ranges from six weeks to six months. The latest countywide survey, in May, found 112 families were stuck on waiting lists for emergency shelters, and a separate list for individual adult units showed 166 homeless people waiting for a bed.

“The vulnerability index can help some of these people who are the most at-risk of dying on the streets,” said Mike Johnson, CEO of the Petaluma-based Committee on the Shelterless, which runs emergency shelter and transitional housing programs in the county. “We’ve got 65 people on the wait list right now, and it takes a month for a person to even get in.”

The new ranking system envisioned for shelter intake also would be used to place homeless people in a range of other housing programs, from transitional units to permanent living quarters.

The sweeping changes are largely tied to funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The ultimate goal is to identify homeless people, gather information about their medical history, health problems and income, and then connect them with shelters or more stable housing.

“These are people who can’t resolve homelessness themselves,” Abramson said. “They don’t know how to get into the shelters and so many have significant challenges that prevent them from accessing any services at all.”

The overhaul would build on the county’s routine homeless counts, conducted every two years. That effort tracks how many people are outdoors on a single night.

Going forward, the county will have a better handle on the size of its homeless population on a daily basis, supporters say.

The Board of Supervisors this summer approved $925,000 in funding for the launch of one part of the effort — the formation of a “homeless outreach team,” including county health and probation employees, that would seek to help the hardest-to-reach homeless people.

Implementing the broad new approach could be a bit rocky, at least at first, officials said.

“Some may not get the services they need in a timely manner,” said Catherine Barber, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support, a shelter with 10 beds in the Sonoma Valley that primarily serves elderly people with mental illnesses. “I’m hoping the initial year is smooth.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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