Susana Romo can tell story after story about the homeless people she serves in Sonoma Valley.
A mom with six children living in a Chevy Suburban, sleeping in parking lots or on side streets, just trying to find a place to stay without being noticed.
A man who works a minimum-wage job at a fast food restaurant but can’t afford a place to live.
A grandmother, taking care of her three grandkids, who was evicted from her house.
Romo, who is a case manager and the only full-time staff member at Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), said in the last year, homelessness in the Valley has increased exponentially.
Recently, SOS received a $10,000 grant from Daly City’s Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation to fund staffing at its new Community Drop-In Resource Center, located at the shelter. This grant, she notes, will help SOS provide services to more individuals and families than the organization can serve through the shelter program.
The shelter, a nonprofit created in 1996 to provide emergency housing to homeless individuals and families in the Valley, currently has a facility with 12 beds located near the Sonoma Police Department on First Street West. There is one room with four beds for men, one room with four beds for women, and one family room with four beds, though the shelter may try to be “creative” to increase sleeping space on extremely cold nights or for larger families, Romo notes.
SOS’ Emergency Shelter Haven isn’t just a shelter where homeless people check in and come back to stay at night, Romo explains. People living in the shelter must enroll in a program and work with Romo to find a way to overcome homelessness and prevent it from recurring in the future.
For the first time this year, Romo said, the shelter had to create a waiting list for the growing number of people seeking housing. There are currently 16 families and 34 adult singles on the waiting list for the shelter. With individuals and families staying the maximum four months at the shelter, Romo says the wait time is nearly three years for individuals and six years for families. “The families are the ones facing the biggest bottleneck since we only have one family room to accommodate the need,” she explained.
According to a January 2013 report by the federal government, Sonoma Valley has had a 33 percent increase in its homeless population since 2011. Romo attests to this increase through more demands for SOS services.
In 2012, three families were served at the SOS shelter with no waiting list. This year, the shelter already has served 11 families.
Romo came up with the idea for the drop-in center last October as a way to provide services for more than just the shelter residents. Services provided at the center include: filling out social security forms, applying for government aid, looking for a job, finding a permanent residence, getting hot meals or taking a shower.
In October 2012, the center served 32 individuals and four families, providing an average of 54 services a month. In November 2013, the center served 122 individuals and nine families, providing 493 services in that month alone. Romo says the average number of services she has provided through the center since June 2013 has increased tenfold, to an average of 353 services a month.
Because the main goal of SOS is prevention and rehabilitation, Romo works with families and individuals who aren’t actively living in the shelter to prevent them from even having to stay in there and to help them find a job and permanent housing.
“The Community Drop-in Center allows for me and Sonoma Overnight Support to help these families secure housing before (they have) to come into the Haven,” Romo says, “or worse, end up on the streets or (living in) cars.”
Volunteer Kathy King said people don’t realize the extent of homelessness in the Valley. “There are a lot of homeless people hidden in the hills,” she notes, adding many people are discreet about their homelessness and some go unnoticed because they have jobs.
Many Sonomans lost their homes when the housing market crashed in 2007, Romo said. Most of the homeless people she serves have jobs, Romo said, but the cost of living in Sonoma is very high – too high to make minimum wage a livable wage.
King said the new resource center is especially important because it gives people a respite where they can eat, do laundry, shower, use a computer or escape harsh weather. While the resource center is open, people can also meet with Romo, gain access to a number of community resources and begin looking for a job and permanent housing.
King said SOS has not heavily publicized its new center because, until the Gellert grant, there was no funding for a full-time staff member to run the center. With the new grant money, she said, Romo runs the resource center and SOS’ emergency shelter program with the help of two part-time employees.
The recent cold spell, King said, increases the mortality rates for homeless. “With this cold weather, six people that we know of died in the Bay Area,” she said.
“This grant is the first formal funding that the Community drop-in center has received in order to address the growing need of homeless services and ultimately homeless prevention in the Sonoma Valley,” Romo explained. However, she added, $10,000 does not cover all SOS needs to help all of the homeless in the Valley.
King hopes that more Sonomans will be aware of homelessness plaguing the Valley, and she urged them to get involved by donating to SOS or volunteering in one of the organization’s many programs. “We are all living here in Sonoma together, we should help each other.”
For more information on SOS, including volunteer opportunities, call 939-6777 or visit sonomaovernightsupport.org. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 748, Sonoma, CA 95476.