Sonoma County’s homeless count assesses population in wake of fires

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The grizzled man on the side of Piner Creek was tuned in for his daily segment of KSRO radio when strangers approached him early Friday, asked a few questions and moved on down the path to look for other homeless individuals to count.

Cheery and agreeable, though he chose to remain unidentified, the man proudly laid claim to a nearby bike, tarped and packed efficiently with what he said was everything he owned in the world, most of it donated.

Homeless for most of his 32 years in Santa Rosa — due “for the most part to a long streak of bad luck” — he said he stayed warm at night thanks to a sleeping bag rated for sub-zero temperatures. He doesn’t bother with a tent anymore, he said.

Each weekday morning, from a jury rigged AM/FM radio he showed off to visitors, he listens to two hours of news talk.

With that, he told his visitors to have a nice day and re-inserted his earbuds.

Almost nothing about his life or history was reflected in the tally sheet used by volunteers Friday morning across Sonoma County to count the current number of homeless residents. The encounter was noted on the sheet in ink-filled bubbles: a solo man in his 50s, sleeping outside, unsheltered.

Friday’s annual point-in-time census is meant generalize the scope of the homeless problem and document any measurable changes that might be evident year-by-year, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities, which helps coordinate the Santa Rosa portion of the annual street census.

It is also a required exercise if the county wants to qualify for more than $3 million in annual federal grants intended to help find housing solutions through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, county officials said.

Ideally, the census numbers go down, as they did last year. The 2017 count revealed an overall 2.4 percent drop in homelessness countywide, with an estimated total of 2,835 people.

But after the destruction of nearly 5,300 homes in the county during last October’s wildfires, there are fears homelessness is on the rise, said Holmes.

The count helps “to tell the story,” Holmes said, noting that behind each number is a person who for any of a number of reasons has been unable to maintain housing. Planned surveys of 600 people contacted Friday will be used to learn more about demographics, medical histories, employment, income status and other information.

About 150 volunteers and 70 paid homeless guides took part in the effort this year, deploying from five different centers around the county. Divided into teams, they headed out before sunrise in hopes that those they intended to count could still be found where they slept in cars, under bridges and in large group encampments, many of which were usually identified ahead of time.

The grass was still stiff with frost and the sky dark enough to make headlamps helpful when Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Lisa Boehm and recently retired Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Keith Flood arrived in northwest Santa Rosa to do their part. The trio was one of about 30 teams deployed in Santa Rosa alone.

Their first stop was an open field off Piner Road in which at least 14 tent sites were tucked among the trees and shrubs along a well-worn, muddied path strewn with garbage, bedding, chairs, clothing, packaged food and random supplies.

Two white rabbits hopped amid the debris.

The camp’s residents were largely Spanish speaking, as Wolf knew from a prior visit. To avoid provoking panic, he paused outside each campsite to identify himself and his purpose, in Spanish, and inquire as to how many slept inside.

Many of the sites already were empty, their occupants perhaps having gone to work, Boehm said.

“You’ve got a lot of the people in here,” she said. “It’s like a little city, and you can’t even see it from the street.”

At the Kohl’s parking lot, where a number of people camping in cars have been typical this past year, the steamed windows of a compact car led Wolf to make a stop.

The man inside, part of a couple sleeping in the small back seat, was alarmed to find a uniformed officer at the door and angrily reported losing his Coffey Park home to the fire.

Later, after he was calmer and he apologized for his outburst, the 35-year-old man, Dase Gabilondo, said he had a voucher for housing but had been unable to find a vacant apartment and had been living in the car since leaving a Red Cross fire shelter after about two weeks. He said he finds the entire experience uncomfortable and embarrassing.

A Marine Corps veteran who served in Pakistan and Yemen, he has post-traumatic stress syndrome that has made it difficult for him to be in the shelter or homeless at all.

“I’m becoming depressed, and I think there’s a line you cross of hopelessness,” Gabilondo said.

He said he sponge bathes each day in public restrooms and vacuums out his car each day.

“There are people out there that have got it worse than me,” he said. But “the depression gets you down.”

Holmes said census teams deployed to the fire zones would be included in the count people they found sleeping in trailers or recreational vehicles at the site of their burned homes. She said she had observed a rise in the number of people sleeping in vehicles since the fires occurred, likely displaced by the disaster.

In addition to the regular count this year, about 2,000 households will be called randomly to try to estimate how many fire survivors may be homeless or at risk of it, officials said.

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

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