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Rohnert Park commits $325,000 to address growing homelessness in city

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Rohnert Park has pledged to spend $325,000 to address homelessness in the city, bolstering ongoing efforts to permanently rehouse the rising number of residents lacking shelter.

The figure represents the City Council’s largest single allocation for homelessness in years and perhaps ever, according to city officials. The bulk of the money will go toward maintaining a homeless housing program with Petaluma-based nonprofit COTS.

“Homelessness is a problem throughout the state, throughout the county, and it follows that it’s a problem in Rohnert Park,” said Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams. “But our money follows our values in Rohnert Park, and in this case we value helping people in the shallow end of the resource pool.”

The City Council Tuesday voted 5-0 to approve $250,000 for the Committee on the Shelterless to pay for a second year of its rapid rehousing services, which includes rental assistance and case management. The money comes out of city funds dedicated to housing.

An additional $75,000 will be put into a reserve fund for homeless outreach efforts. That money is from payments made to the city by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who own the casino on Rohnert Park’s western edge. The reserve fund is meant to forestall potential homeless service cuts at COTS in the event of a drop in state and federal funding.

During the first year of the rapid rehousing program, COTS was able to get 70 homeless residents housed, according to city. COTS, founded in 1988, says its data show that of the people who are helped through the program, more than 80% remain housed or otherwise without need of aid with shelter five years later.

“That suggests it is a permanent solution for most of those who are served by it,” said Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park’s assistant city manager. “It’s a proven, cost- effective way to get folks who are homeless in Rohnert Park housing.”

The county’s third-largest city, with a population hovering around 43,000 residents, Rohnert Park has a relatively small number of people experiencing homelessness. Of the nearly 3,000 people tallied countywide in the most recent annual homelessness survey, just 138 were counted in Rohnert Park.

But, of that total, Rohnert Park has one of the highest percentages, 92%, of individuals who were unsheltered, which is defined by living on the street or in a car. And the city’s number of homeless people in 2018 also represented a nearly 40% spike compared to the previous year, after declining between 2016 and 2017.

Santa Rosa, the most populated city, had about 1,800 homeless individuals in city limits and on its outskirts. The number reflected an 8% rise from 2017.

The reasons for the uptick aren’t entirely clear to Rohnert Park officials. Rising rents and stagnant wages are two likely factors, said Schwartz. The homeless residents are mostly mobile, he said, but many of their encampments have cropped up along the city’s 15-mile network of creek paths, as well as at construction sites on the west side of Highway 101.

The impact of the 2017 fires, which leveled more than 5,300 homes in the county, is seen as another underlying factor in the 6% rise in homelessness countywide from 2017 to 2018. More may be known about the fires’ lasting effect on homelessness when the county releases the 2019 survey this summer.

A countywide homeless task force last month awarded more than $14 million to service providers for homeless programs and projects countywide. About $12 million came from the state as a one-time lump sum. Cities in the south county cluster — Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Cotati — account for more than 460 homeless individuals, the second-largest share countywide, after Santa Rosa but ahead of the north county.

Schwartz, who was a member of the nine-member task force, noted that he preferred to hold back some of the $12 million to ensure money remained available for the next year. He was outvoted 8-1, however, which is why he recommended the City Council set aside the $75,000 for what he called an “insurance policy” in case funds dry up.

“At some point, there’s a good chance we’re either going off a cliff or there will be a steep dropoff in state money,” he said. “Even to the extent of the funding available, we were underserved historically. If we don’t have somebody to connect those in the small- and medium-sized cities and our homeless population to those services, they aren’t of value to us.”

Though the city allocation was approved unanimously Tuesday, longtime Councilwoman Pam Stafford raised concerns about how the money would be spent. Committing the city to such a hefty sum, some of which goes toward COTS staff and administrative needs instead of to direct financial assistance, she said, gave her pause, especially if the city approved funds beyond the upcoming budget year.

Stafford also took issue with the state’s general housing-first approach to resolving homelessness, which emphasizes providing stable shelter before addressing other challenges such as mental health and substance abuse. City staff said about 40% of Rohnert Park’s homeless population face such issues and are in need of substantial intervention or permanent support.

“Honestly, I’m concerned about the whole thing,” she said. “We’re not helping the core reason why people are homeless. Just putting them in a house doesn’t help them. And it doesn’t give them hope. You have to help the people to be able to live the life that they should be living, not living in a tent.”

Emily Quig, COTS case management supervisor, sought to address Stafford’s concerns. She told the council that case management and direct financial assistance were elements of the program’s success in its first year, calling the combination with housing a “package deal.”

“(They) really go hand in hand,” Quig said. “In rapid rehousing, we …provide very, very short-term, time-limited case management for people to help them regain stability and then we’re out of the picture.

“For most folks who are homeless, the solution to that homelessness is a home,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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