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Sonoma County 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Census & Survey

2,906 homeless individuals in Sonoma County

97 unsheltered, unaccompanied children under the age of 18

566 transition-age homeless, aged 18-24

156 families with 389 members

274 veterans

One in four were chronically homeless. Life expectancy for those who are homeless is, on average, 25 percent lower than those with permanent residence.

34% staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing; 66% unsheltered

52% had a disabling condition

28% of first-time homeless had been without a home for one year or more

82% were Sonoma County residents when they became homeless

64% had called Sonoma County home for 10 years or more

26% received no government benefits

17% were employed

50% of those who received an income lived on $749 a month or less

43% experienced homelessness for the first time below the age of 25

20% sleep in vehicles or RVs

36% live outdoors, in parks or on the streets, down from 57% in 2013

Sonoma County’s population of homeless people continues to decline, despite a recent spike in the visibility of shelterless residents in downtown Santa Rosa and other areas, and figures that show the county still far exceeds the national rate of homelesness.

Those are key takeaways from a newly released final report generated from the countywide census of homeless residents earlier this year.

The Jan. 29 point-in-time count found 2,906 homeless individuals — down from 3,107 last year, 4,280 in 2013 and 4,539 in 2011. The continued decline reflects an improved economy, as well as targeted housing efforts designed to make permanent reductions in the shelterless population, homeless advocates said.

“The data does show that we are housing more people than we’ve ever housed before,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa and a key player in the network of public and non-governmental agencies working to address the problem.

In recent years the county, city of Santa Rosa and non-governmental organizations have funneled millions of dollars toward refocused efforts to expand shelter capacity and provide support services to address the root causes of housing instability, including, substance addiction, mental and physical illness, poverty and unemployment.

Moreover, the January count was conducted before the realization of two key local initiatives that have since increased housing availability for those at risk of homelessness.

They include The Palms Inn, a converted motel on Santa Rosa Avenue that’s now home to 118 formerly homeless people, including 60 veterans and 44 chronically homeless individuals; and the Dream Center, also in Santa Rosa, run by Social Advocates for Youth, which by year’s end is expected to be home to 40 people aged 18-to-24.

But the newly released report on the one-day count and follow-up surveys with a sample of 605 individuals over the ensuing two months include a demographic breakdown with troubling indicators about highly vulnerable residents.

There were 97 children under age 18 living unsheltered, without a parent or guardian. About one in five of the homeless people counted were under age 25.

There were 156 families representing 389 members without permanent housing, though 95 percent were in emergency shelter.

More than two-thirds of those questioned reported suffering from one or more health conditions, including drug or alcohol addiction, psychiatric conditions, physical disabilities and health problems, traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress.

Nearly a quarter had experienced domestic or partner abuse or violence.

And the county’s homeless population remains disproportionately high when compared with other communities across the country — though less so than a few years ago.

“We have three times the national rate of homelessness,” Holmes said.

She and others acknowledged the declining numbers seem to contradict what many have observed in their town and community centers — places like downtown Santa Rosa, Petaluma and rural Guerneville, where residents have grappled with an increasingly visible and sometimes disruptive homeless presence.

In Santa Rosa, where the City Council is considering an emergency declaration on homelessness, three homeless residents have been killed in homicides this year.

Amid the violence, officials have cited several potential factors for the higher visibility of homeless people, including the dislocation of perhaps hundreds of residents from encampments along railroad tracks to make way for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. Others have been rousted from camps that threatened to contaminate local creeks, officials said.

Sonoma County 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Census & Survey

2,906 homeless individuals in Sonoma County

97 unsheltered, unaccompanied children under the age of 18

566 transition-age homeless, aged 18-24

156 families with 389 members

274 veterans

One in four were chronically homeless. Life expectancy for those who are homeless is, on average, 25 percent lower than those with permanent residence.

34% staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing; 66% unsheltered

52% had a disabling condition

28% of first-time homeless had been without a home for one year or more

82% were Sonoma County residents when they became homeless

64% had called Sonoma County home for 10 years or more

26% received no government benefits

17% were employed

50% of those who received an income lived on $749 a month or less

43% experienced homelessness for the first time below the age of 25

20% sleep in vehicles or RVs

36% live outdoors, in parks or on the streets, down from 57% in 2013

“We’re moving people out of the shadows, and that’s not such a bad thing, because they still live here whether we see them or not,” said county Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Advocates also stressed that most unpleasant encounters with the homeless are limited to a small fraction whose behavior is offensive or illegal.

“For a lot of people, the face of homelessness is the aggressive panhandler,” Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said this week. But “once you start meeting them, they’re just like us.”

The annual census — conducted every other year in Sonoma County until this year — is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for counties that want to qualify for federal funds to address homelessness. It also provides a guide for programs and a measurement of progress, highlighting successes and “a significant gap between the homeless community’s needs and the available resources,” Zane said.

Historically, the county’s high homeless rate has been deemed a function in part of steep housing costs, which have continued to skyrocket in recent years.

That trend could be felt on the streets in the years to come, reflected in higher numbers of homeless people, said Jenny Helbraun-Abramson, the county’s homeless and community services manager.

In the meantime, the improved economy was likely a key to declining rates in recent years, she said.

More than half the homeless individuals counted in January —1,640, or 56 percent — were in Santa Rosa, where services are concentrated and the county jail is located.

In Rohnert Park, the single-day tally counted 126 homeless individuals, a 180 percent increase over the 2015 census, the most dramatic jump among local cities.

A redoubled push to quickly house those needing basic assistance, including rent subsidies, appears to paying off, according to Holmes. The housing retention rate among those residents so far is about 94 percent, and “probably relates to why there are less people” who are homeless in the county, Holmes said.

“Three years ago, we didn’t have a rapid rehousing program,” she said.

Under federal guidelines, the county also has adopted a “housing-first” approach, reversing long-held models that required, for instance, clients get clean and sober before they could secure housing assistance. The new policy acknowledges the need for stable housing to achieve and maintain sobriety. Nearly two-thirds of those deemed chronically homeless suffered from drug or alcohol addiction, the new report found.

“We are screening people in, rather than screening people out,” Holmes said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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