Annual homeless census conducted Friday to quantify extent of homelessness in Sonoma County
Huddled under a white fleece blanket, a person slept on a long asphalt driveway early Friday morning next to the Roseland Community Library in southwest Santa Rosa. A damaged wheelchair sat just a couple of feet away, under a sign printed on the side of the library that stated “No Trespassing.”
In the pre-dawn darkness, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Lisa Boehm saw the blanket move.
“There’s definitely someone there,” Boehm told the two other volunteers on her team participating in the county’s annual count of homeless people.
The sleeping individual would have no name, age or gender. But he or she would be included in the county’s official tally of the local homeless population. Conducted on a single day each winter, Friday’s count is a critical part of the county’s annual homeless census and a crucial statistic that determines how much federal and state money the county gets for homeless services.
Last year’s count, highlighted in a federal report to Congress, found Sonoma County had one of the largest homeless populations among largely suburban communities in the United States. The report, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Sonoma County had large numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth, living in shelters or on the streets, and chronically homeless people.
Organizers with the Sonoma County Community Development Commission said Friday they expected the number of homeless people will increase again this year, as struggles continue in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires. In fact, this year’s count could be an even better measure of the effects of the devastating wildfires 15 months ago.
“I’m very worried. I think the numbers are going to go up this year,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which organized the volunteers who conducted the count in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
Holmes said it usually takes more than a year before the impact of a major natural or economic disaster results in first-time homelessness. For example, she said the effect of the 2008 financial collapse on homelessness wasn’t felt in the county until 12 to 18 months later.
“Anecdotally, we are beginning to see an increase of people who are entering the homeless system of care for the first time and we can trace back the reason why they become homeless to the fires,” Holmes said.
Last February, the winter homeless count tallied 2,835 homeless people, an increase of 6 percent, or 161 people. The increase followed a seven-year decline from a peak of 4,539 homeless people in 2011.
The count in Santa Rosa is expected to document about 60 percent of the county’s homeless population. A number of “multipliers” derived from surveys and other statistical data will be applied to the raw numbers tallied Friday to come up with a final official count, which is expected to be released sometime before summer.
Shortly after 5 a.m. Friday, Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf were among the first to head out of Catholic Charities’ Family Support Center on A Street in downtown Santa Rosa. The shelter was used as the base of operations for the Santa Rosa portion of the count.
Schwedhelm, a retired police chief, and Wolf covered an area whose boundaries included downtown Santa Rosa, Railroad Square and a segment of west Santa Rosa. Wolf was in charge of the clipboard as Schwedhelm directed his mini-flashlight down alleyways, behind garbage bins and freeway landscape slopes.