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While the numbers tell a story of success in reducing Sonoma County’s homeless population, officials and homeless advocates acknowledged at a public forum Wednesday night that the problem seems worse in downtown Santa Rosa, where merchants and shoppers are frustrated by people sleeping and panhandling near Old Courthouse Square.

“It’s in our face. Everyone sees it. People say, I don’t want to go downtown,” said Michael Hyman, a merchant and member of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Downtown Advisory Board. “People’s perception is reality.”

Hyman was one of six panelists participating in Lost in Paradise II, a forum sponsored by The Press Democrat focusing on efforts to address homelessness.

“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “it’s frustrating, it’s difficult, it’s challenging.”

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said police frequently get calls to deal with people sleeping in doorways, but their options are limited.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” he said, and law enforcement is “ill-equipped to deal with complex community problems long-term.”

“We can’t arrest our way out of this homeless situation,” Santa Rosa City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a former police chief, told an audience of about 260 people at the Glaser Center auditorium.

Homeless people have become more visible, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. Clearing the long-established homeless camps along the railroad tracks with the advent of the SMART commuter trains displaced a “couple hundred people,” she said, and creek cleanups have uprooted more homeless.

But there’s also reason to acknowledge progress toward the county’s goal of eliminating homelessness by 2025, Holmes said.

The latest homeless count, conducted on Jan. 29, found 2,844 homeless people in Sonoma County, down 37 percent from the peak local homeless census of 4,539 in 2011, according to the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

That number includes 1,904 living on the streets, in abandoned buildings, vehicles and encampments, while the rest are in shelters or transitional housing. Last year, the homeless total was 3,107, including both sheltered and unsheltered people.

Economic growth accounted for some of the downtick in homelessness, along with new programs and approaches to the problem, Holmes said.

Holmes and other panelists, including County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and Matt Martin, executive director of Social Advocates for Youth, hailed the opening in February of the Palms Inn, which is housing 60 homeless veterans and 44 chronically homeless people in a converted motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, along with the opening of SAY’s Dream Center, with capacity to house 63 youths.

The 44 chronically homeless people placed at the Palms Inn were deemed “among the most likely to die on the streets of Sonoma County,” Holmes said. The residents have started a community garden, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups, she said.

Zane noted that the county has adopted a “housing first” model, which aims to put homeless people under a roof before connecting them with support services, instead of the other way around. The concept “came out of the Bush administration, believe it or not,” she said.

The forum, moderated by Press Democrat Editorial Director Paul Gullixson, was interrupted early on by a woman who shouted from the audience and then walked onto the stage.

“I don’t really like Catholic Charities, OK?” she said, also rejecting the report that fewer people were homeless.

“It’s crap,” she said.

A woman who appeared to be a friend or a caregiver escorted the woman off the stage.

“She’s right,” called another woman from the audience. “This is a puff piece so far.”

Kathleen Kane, executive director of the Community Development Commission, said the annual homeless survey can’t count every homeless person. “It is always an undercount,” she said.

Gullixson introduced Ray Nasholm, 19, of Petaluma, who recounted his childhood in a broken home — at times with no water, power or food — and his later migration from house to house as an alcoholic teen who hung out with gangs.

Nasholm said his life changed when he and his mother got a room at the Catholic Charities Family Support Center.

“It was like a big family,” he said. “I have their logo tattooed on my leg.”

The audience applauded loudly when Nasholm, who now has a fulltime job as a security guard, said that on July 15 he will have “four years clean and sober.”

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