In Sonoma, the homeless aren’t as visible as in other cities.
Seldom can someone be found panhandling in front of local grocery stores or on the Plaza square. We almost never see people sleeping on sidewalks, huddled in doorways.
But tucked on side streets, under bridges, camped out in parking lots or crammed with seven others in a tiny apartment, the homeless population is growing in Sonoma, just as it is in the rest of the country.
Elizabeth Kemp, a local Sonoma Overnight Shelter volunteer and one of the first members of the free, warm-burrito-providing Brown Baggers, has been working to help Sonoma’s homeless for more than 30 years. In the last 10 years, she says, the homeless population in the Valley has increased with the recession and an increasingly disproportionate low-wage to high-living-cost ratio. Kemp helps with Sonoma County’s annual homeless count, and in the last year counted more than 200 homeless people – though she says accurate homeless numbers are difficult to determine. But, at least 200 homeless people live in the Valley permanently. Most live here and work here, she says.
Kemp explains that the term “homeless” is broad and an overgeneralization, citing people who live on a different friend’s couch each week, or out of their cars, as technically homeless but are more accurately defined as “inadequately sheltered.” The “unsheltered” people, on the other hand, camp out in empty fields, on less travelled streets or under bridges.
But where do these unsheltered homeless go when it’s too cold or too wet to safely live outside?
“Rain drives them under the bridges at places like Maxwell Park or St. Leo’s (Catholic Church),” Kemp says.
After a string of homeless deaths during bitter Bay Area winter weather, Kemp and longtime FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping) volunteers Sandra and Alan Piotter, along with 20 other compassionate Sonomans, are trying to answer this emergency housing question with the creation of the Sonoma Severe Weather Shelter.
FISH and SOS, along with members of the faith community and several churches, teamed up to provide a warm, safe, dry place for homeless to sleep when temperatures dip to 32 degrees, or below 40 degrees while rainy. In January, 25 volunteers met to discuss creating a rotating shelter like other places in the country have Sandra said, noting inspiration from Washington County, Ore.
Kemp and Sandra say the number of homeless people – or people on the verge of homelessness – is on the rise in Sonoma. “There used to be inexpensive places people could live,” Kemp said, “but now even someone working full-time on minimum wage can’t afford to rent, or can’t find a place to rent.”
“The recession dropped people to a hard place,” shelter co-organizer and volunteer Bill Hutchinson explained. “The community needs to look at its own economic engine, the living wage especially. We are aware of the need for an increase (in the minimum wage).”
The local homeless population varies from single men and women who struggle with meth addictions or alcoholism, to migrant workers who are so underpaid they can’t afford housing, to families with working parents who must choose whether to pay rent or feed their children every day. “For every homeless person,” Kemp says, “there’s a story, and a lot of them live rough.”