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The search for lasting solutions to homelessness in western Sonoma County is set to get a sorely needed infusion of cash, but the nearly half-million dollars authorized by county supervisors does not include additions to low-cost housing stock, one of the region’s most pressing shortages.

Sonoma County supervisors last week approved $450,000 for projects targeting homelessness on the lower Russian River where a growing number of people have been living on the streets and in roadside encampments in recent years.

The projects are part of a community effort to alleviate homelessness and its impacts, with the stated goal of placing 50 people from the area into permanent, stable housing by January 2019.

The approved plans do not include housing-stock additions, in part because of the disqualification of a proposal that included construction of 20 tiny homes. Its rejection by the Community Development Commission leaves an additional $300,000 available for future distribution.

Most of the approved projects received only half the money they requested, according to Guerneville School Superintendent Dana Pedersen, who serves on a community task force on homelessness assembled by 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

“There are many opportunities still there,” Pedersen told the Board of Supervisors last week.

The board unanimously approved five funded proposals. They include $221,000 to West County Community Services for identifying housing and getting homeless individuals housed; $100,000 to the Russian Riverkeeper/Clean River Alliance for environmental education and promotion of trash collection to prevent camp waste from polluting the watershed; $58,000 to Social Advocates for Youth for outreach to young adults struggling with a lack of housing; $50,000 to the Russian River Alliance for emergency relief for hospitality and service workers; and $20,000 to Russian River Area Resources and Advocates for coordination of community efforts to housing access.

The funding awards come from $750,000 budgeted by the county earlier this year to develop short-term solutions to a crisis that has riled residents of Guerneville and surrounding communities and sown distrust of county government, established nonprofits and even some community members associated with several proposed shelter and homeless service operations.

The county’s annual point-in-time survey of those experiencing homelessness found in January 2017 that the homeless population countywide had declined by 2 percent. But in unincorporated western Sonoma County, the number rose 20 percent over the previous year, up to 248 individuals mainly in the lower river region.

The town of Guerneville, with its economic dependence on tourism, has struggled particularly with highly visible nuisance behaviors from the homeless in the center of town.

At the same time, many in the community have rejected high-cost, large-scale county proposals for shelters and service centers that some fear would make the problems worse. Many complained that proposed fixes were being imposed on them by county officials unfamiliar with their community.

The result was the 16-member task force assembled in August by Hopkins to leverage public input and solicit ideas that might help connect people with housing.

The group received nine proposals. Those were winnowed to six, including one from the Patrick McCaffrey Foundation of Long Beach, which wanted to create a street outreach team to help connect individuals with services and shelter, as well as provide transportation. Participants also would be trained to construct 20 ultralight tiny homes.

While county officials were excited by the proposal, the Community Development Commission and its executive director Margaret Van Vliet rejected the idea, saying the nonprofit didn’t have the infrastructure, experience or track record to entrust it with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds.

“It was definitely with regret and disappointment that I’ve learned these things, because I was excited about the project,” Hopkins said at the board’s Dec. 12 meeting.

West County Community Services, in contrast, has housed 10 people since August through a separate contract, Van Vliet said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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