Annual homeless census conducted Friday to quantify extent of homelessness in Sonoma County

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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.

On Morgan Street, the two volunteers found a number of people sleeping inside cars, trucks and RVs. Window condensation often made it difficult to see inside vehicles and volunteers were instructed not to engage or disturb the people they encountered.

“This is a visual count only. It’s important to maintain a respectful distance,” said Marissa Jaross, a senior research analyst with Applied Survey Research, a San Jose firm contracted by the county for the count.

Later in the morning, as teams started returning to the Family Support Center, Holmes said team leaders were reporting seeing more people sleeping in vehicles. Living in cars, trucks and RVs is often the first step toward homelessness, she said.

Schwedhelm and Wolf both counted about 125 people, while Boehm and her team, which covered a large portion of southwest Santa Rosa along Sebastopol Road, counted 49. Michael Gause, the county’s acting homeless services manager, pointed out that the actual number likely will be greater after more statistical analysis is conducted. Counts also were organized in four other portions of the county.

The teams were assisted by “guides,” current and former homeless people, who helped volunteers identify hard-to-find locations where people often sleep.

Among the volunteers was Robin Hall, 44, a woman who spent the past two years sleeping in encampments and until about two weeks ago resisted shelter services. Hall, who assisted volunteers Ed Sheffield and Andrea Garfia — both Sutter Health employees — conduct a count of an area in Roseland.

Hall, who said she’s been clean and sober for two months, has been living at Sam Jones Hall in Santa Rosa for two weeks and hopes to find permanent housing soon.

“I was camping myself for two years,” Hall said, just before she led Sheffield and Garfia into a grassy wooded area she called, “Turkey Field,” across from Roseland Creek Elementary School on Burbank Avenue.

Hall said that in previous years she didn’t mind being counted. “People should know who’s out here,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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