Sonoma County officials aim for 20% drop in homelessness

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Home Sonoma County’s leadership council

Tom Schwedhelm, mayor, Santa Rosa (chairman)

Mark Krug, business development manager, Burbank Housing (vice chairman)

Julie Combs, council member, Santa Rosa

Susan Gorin, supervisor, Sonoma County

Lynda Hopkins, supervisor, Sonoma County

Gabe Kearney, council member, Petaluma

David Kuskie, peer support specialist, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Rebekah Sammet, formerly homeless person

Don Schwartz, assistant city manager, Rohnert Park

Sonoma County officials hope a recently approved big cash injection could mean shelter for 1 out of every 5 people in the county’s homeless population.

The county Board of Supervisors late last month approved a homelessness spending plan of $14.1 million allocated through a regional approach that involves local elected officials, housing advocates and experts, and at least one formerly homeless person, who comprise the leadership council of a new entity called Home Sonoma County.

The investment, propelled by about $12.1 million in one-time state funding, is more than seven times what Sonoma County typically spends annually on homelessness, giving local officials reason to be plenty optimistic.

“This funding could drive down the number of people who are experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County by as much as 20%,” said Jenny Abramson, homeless and community services manager with the county’s Community Development Commission. “We need funding on this level to end homelessness.”

The move to spend significantly more money on homeless services comes after two reports have shown the number of people living on the streets and in cars in the county and the Bay Area is among the highest in the country. A December analysis by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the county’s homeless population is the biggest nationwide among largely suburban communities.

A latest available tally showed about 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County. The county’s funding plan calls for roughly $7.5 million in capital spending on homeless projects and doles out about $6.6 million to create new assistance programs and to support or expand existing efforts. Abramson estimated the money would connect 146 people with existing housing and homeless services, add another 143 beds for the homeless, and serve another 309 households with temporary rental assistance, housing placement and case management services.

Nearly $2 million is earmarked for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s largest homeless services provider and operator of the city’s Sam Jones Hall, the largest homeless shelter in the county. Other major providers receiving substantial allocations include Social Advocates for Youth, which is set to receive about $750,000, and Petaluma’s Committee on the Shelterless, which is slated to get about $850,000, according to county documents.

Santa Rosa’s request for $1.6 million to build a new roof for Sam Jones was partially funded at just under $1.3 million. That request, approved last month by the nine-person leadership council, scuttled the city’s $2 million plan to revamp the former Bennett Valley Senior Center into a homeless center with up to 60 beds.

Another $450,000 is set to go to a partnership between Santa Rosa nonprofit The Living Room and unincorporated advocacy group Homeless Action!, which has had some members recently disrupt government city meetings in criticism of local officials.

“Essentially what it amounts to is that we got almost a half a million dollars thrown at us in this lovely way, and we’re super happy about it,” said Scott Wagner, a member of the loose-knit grassroots group.

Wagner said the money will go toward projects including a safe place for about 30 cars in which homeless people will live to park overnight, an RV park for about 18 more vehicles and a “village” with about a dozen tiny homes for people who need shelter. He hopes these places will start sheltering people by Nov. 1.

Home Sonoma County’s leadership council

Tom Schwedhelm, mayor, Santa Rosa (chairman)

Mark Krug, business development manager, Burbank Housing (vice chairman)

Julie Combs, council member, Santa Rosa

Susan Gorin, supervisor, Sonoma County

Lynda Hopkins, supervisor, Sonoma County

Gabe Kearney, council member, Petaluma

David Kuskie, peer support specialist, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Rebekah Sammet, formerly homeless person

Don Schwartz, assistant city manager, Rohnert Park

Though some of the county money is specifically allocated to shelter homeless people at 2005 Linwood Ave. near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Wagner acknowledged Homeless Action! has not been able to secure that site. He hesitated to say exactly where the group was seeking to run its homeless projects, which are still in preliminary stages.

“My life is just a whole barrel of tentativeness about all of this,” he said.

More information about how the money to help alleviate homelessness will be spent is available at sonomacounty.ca.gov/Home-Sonoma-Leadership-Council. The leadership council is next scheduled to meet June 26.

County supervisors on April 30 considered but avoided diverting about $1.4 million from the homelessness spending plan to bolster a county-funded housing program sheltering roughly 222 people with severe mental illness. Board Chairman David Rabbitt urged staff to find a way to house these individuals to avoid pushing more people onto the streets as the county adopts a new budget over the next couple months.

“We have this huge homeless population, and we have a lot of catch-up to be doing,” Santa Rosa councilman Jack Tibbetts said last month. He’s executive director of St. Vincent De Paul Sonoma County, a nonprofit that hopes to convert the Gold Coin Motel on Mendocino Avenue into a home for 56 homeless people. The nonprofit got $1.5 million for that project, short of the $2.5 million it requested.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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