Sonoma County declares homeless emergency

County officials say a 6 percent bump in homelessness since the October fires is a sign of an 'advancing wave of homelessness.'|

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday declared a state of emergency around homelessness, escalating government focus on a crisis that has become more dire in the wake of catastrophic wildfires that destroyed nearly 5,300 homes across the county last year.

Already, the number of homeless residents has climbed 6 percent, to almost 3,000 people, according to the county's February census, which officials released last week.

Going forward, fallout from the fires could mean thousands more people 'falling into homelessness,' Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, told supervisors.

The first wave appeared 'in a very short period of time,' Assistant Executive Director Geoffrey Ross said.

Supervisors unanimously adopted the state of emergency, a necessary step to allow the county to compete for up to $12 million in one-time funding under the state's new Homeless Emergency Aid Program.

The criteria for eligibility is not yet clear, but grants obtained through the program could be used for a variety of purposes, including rapid rehousing services, emergency housing vouchers, shelter construction and use of armories for temporary shelter.

It would provide a significant boost for local efforts to address the substantial needs of those without permanent housing, an increasingly visible population in such places as downtown Santa Rosa, public parklands and the banks of the Russian River.

Efforts to close camps throughout the region have only served to disperse many of the chronically homeless.

'I knew that we would be impacted by the fires, and we probably are impacted even more than is reflected in the counts here,' said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her own Oakmont home to the wildfires.

Several people who attended the board's meeting spoke to this issue and pleaded for a place for the affected people to live peacefully and safely in their vehicles or tents.

Adrienne Lauby of the advocacy group Homeless Action called for camps in each of the county's five supervisorial districts.

'Make a law that cars cannot be in garages until all people have at least that level of shelter,' she said.

Sonoma County, along with cities around California and the nation, have been wrestling with the issue of homelessness for at least the past two decades.

The city of Santa Rosa declared its own homeless state of emergency in 2016, elevating the issue as a city priority and allowing officials to lift certain health, safety and zoning restrictions to permit shelters and other services on public lands or private properties, such as churches.

The county Community Development Commission considered a similar move around that time but deemed it unnecessary and redundant, given prior approval of language promoting innovation and creativity in developing housing solutions.

Without attached state or federal funding, there did not appear to be a reason to do it, officials said. Supervisors have allocated public funds for new projects, case management and shifting priorities aimed at getting people off the street and into permanent housing, bypassing emergency shelters, beginning with the most vulnerable.

The local homeless population peaked at 4,539 in 2011, in the wake of the recession. Last year, it was recorded as 2,835 people.

But after a steady, seven-year decline, the population rose by 161 people in February.

'Two thousand, nine hundred ninety-six,' Van Vliet said Tuesday. 'That's our number this year: 2,996 seniors, families with kids, veterans and people with disabilities who go to sleep in a place not meant for human habitation, or in a shelter. It is not acceptable.'

Additionally, the county saw an 11 percent spike in the percentage of individuals who were experiencing homelessness for the first time — 35 percent of those surveyed this year, compared to 24 percent a year earlier — strongly signaling that the October firestorm has played a role, according to Ross, the CDC's assistant executive director.

Five percent of those surveyed declared that fires were the reason for their homelessness.

A related telephone survey of nearly 1,200 residents found that more than 4 percent of the county population, or about 21,000 people, are sleeping on a friend's couch or doubled up in someone else's home or otherwise living informally somewhere and at risk of homelessness, officials said.

About half of those sampled said they were in that situation as a direct or indirect result of the firestorm, and about 43 percent of the respondents were aged 55 or older, so many are likely on fixed incomes, housing officials said.

Several of the latter were among the contingent of self-described homeless or formerly homeless people who attended Tuesday's meeting and contributed to the conversation.

They called for greater accountability among homeless providers, particularly the county's largest, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, provisions of sanitary facilities for those who live on the streets and an end to camp sweeps.

One woman who identified herself as newly homeless questioned the accuracy of the census.

'I must assert that this count is probably low by about 50 percent,' she said. 'There are probably about 6,000 homeless here.'

Ross noted that housing and homeless officials were on alert in December for signs of increasing demand for emergency shelter and services that might signal rising homelessness.

The signs weren't there at the time, but by February they were alarming, Ross said, signaling what's likely to be a worse crisis than what came after the recession and housing collapse.

'It's going to be a much more dramatic, and quick impact to our services,' Ross said.

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

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