Close to Home: Finding space for a growing homeless population

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The impact of homelessness in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and other cities at times is clear to the naked eye on our streets, in our parks and along our trails, yet it also is invisible.

The number of people experiencing homelessness increased by 6 percent in our community in the past year, likely due to the October fires. Almost 3,000 Sonoma County residents were counted as homeless, and almost two-thirds of them were living outside. That’s just not acceptable in a community, a state, a nation so rich with resources — and we are working hard to change it.

But February’s annual homeless count revealed another disturbing trend. In a follow-up survey, researchers found that more than 21,000 county residents are “unstable” in their housing. In other words, they are informally sharing a home with friends or family, or, simply, couch-surfing. Half of these people lost their homes either directly or indirectly due to the fires, which is when their housing changed from “stable” to “unstable.”

Both groups — the homeless and those at risk of homelessness — need our help. Your city and county leaders have worked hard over the past few years to help those living outside access stable housing and supportive services. Ensuring that people experiencing homelessness have a path to permanent, safe and stable housing also helps to avoid the negative health and safety community impacts associated with homelessness.

The two of us sit on subcommittees formed by the City Council and the Board of Supervisors to address deficiencies in our system of care that were identified in a consultant’s report in 2017. We meet regularly to study these improvements, and soon we will recommend changes to our council and board. We look forward to the public weighing in on our suggestions.

Among the strategies under consideration to correct deficiencies, and to address the challenges laid out in the latest homeless count report, are:

— Making sure elected officials are at the center of policy and funding decisions for homelessness, and that our work is more transparent and coordinated. Our current system is diffuse, with too many groups seemingly in charge, which leads to confusion and reduces accountability.

— Including representatives from our rural and unincorporated areas of the county in decision-making processes.

— Clearly defining measures of success and sharing the outcomes regularly so the public can understand what projects and programs truly work, and so the reasons are clear when we need to adjust course to deliver better results.

— Investing in housing, especially for those with the lowest incomes. Our local housing dollars prioritize creation of permanent housing with supportive services, and we hope to put hundreds of more units into production in the next year. Santa Rosa voters will decide on an affordable housing bond this fall — a powerful tool to leverage hundreds of millions of state, federal and private dollars to build the housing our community needs.

— Making strategic investments in the current shelter system so that it accommodates more people with disabilities.

— Ensuring the homeless services meet the needs of people in both our urban as well as our smaller cities and unincorporated areas.

— Helping our nonprofit partners to be well-equipped to do what they do best — care for our struggling neighbors and put them on a path to long-term housing stability — by making our contracts with them more clear about the outcomes we want to see.

Recently, the county joined the city in officially declaring a homeless state of emergency in our community. This will give us access to millions of dollars in state funding recently designated to address the statewide homeless crisis. Putting the above strategies to work will not just improve our homeless system of care, but allow us to put that money to work in the most effective ways possible when it released by Sacramento.

Many in our community are at the brink of homelessness. And for the 2,996 seniors, young adults, veterans, families with children, and people with mental illness who are living in places not meant for human habitation, or in temporary shelters, solutions can’t come fast enough. At the county and city, we believe that everyone deserves a home and no child or adult should have to wonder where they are going to sleep at night. Our hope is that we all believe this and together, we commit to redoubling our efforts to end homelessness.

Chris Coursey is mayor of Santa Rosa, and Susan Gorin is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

You can send a letter to the editor at

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