Richard Garcia shares the patio table in the backyard of the Haven, Sonoma’s homeless support shelter, with his nephew Andrew Garcia, Rene Fitzhugh and a couple of dogs. They’ve come for the day services at the Haven, which include a lunch, showers, a laundry room, use of the computer and just a place to spend the afternoon. All are homeless.
“Before, all I did was hang out in front of the stores,” says Garcia, who has lived in Sonoma since he was born in 1955. “This is so much better.”
Andrew is in his 20s, relatively clean-cut and alert, and he seems easily employable. But finding work isn’t the real problem. “I don’t see how anybody can afford to live here anymore, it’s friggin’ outrageous,” said Andrew, more or less.
None of them want to leave Sonoma – it’s home, and as one of them says, it’s “a charmed place.” But they’ve been squeezed out of their homes, and into the encampments along the creeks or in the hills, and not entirely due to their own failings.
Fitzhugh even won the lottery a few years ago – or at least $5,000 on a scratcher, and “We did the right thing with most of it,” she said. Part of that was paying $2,000 in advance rent for the house she and her husband were sharing on Broadway, across from Adele Harrison. But the housemate they gave the money to just took it and left town, instead of passing it on to the landlord – a situation she described as “a mishap with a roommate,” but one that led to homelessness.
For these three – and perhaps as many as 100 more in Sonoma – homelessness has become, for one reason or another, how they live their lives. “It’s easy to be homeless in Sonoma in the daytime,” said Andrew Garcia. “At night it’s hard.”
The recent release of the 2017 Point-in-Time homeless survey contained, as these things do, both good news and bad. The good news, modest though it is, was a slight decrease in the census of Sonoma County homeless, at 2,835 as of Jan. 26, 2017, down from the 2016 total of 2,906. Much of this decline is thought to be from such “housing first” solutions as converting Santa Rosa’s Palm Motel to homes for the homeless.
But Sonoma Valley is where you go to find the bad news. In 2016, 21 homeless people were counted in the City of Sonoma; in 2017 the number rose to 91. In the unincorporated areas, primarily in the Springs, the homeless count rose from 65 to 98.
That’s an overall increase of the homeless count in Sonoma Valley from 86 in 2016 to 189 in 2017, a surge of almost 120 percent.
Kathy King of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), the nonprofit which operates the Haven, believes some of that increase is down to the methodology used to count. Most of the county’s homeless population congregate in more urban areas, particularly Santa Rosa. But the Sonoma Valley landscape is far more rural than urban, making it harder to count people who might be camping under bridges and along wooded creeks.
King and SOS pointed out these challenges to the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, which managed the fact-finding task. “With our encouragement the 2017 count methodology was adjusted to accommodate our rural setting: a later starting time, better training for counters and their homeless guides, and the opportunity to review the area maps prior to the count,” King recently stated. “These changes improved the accuracy of the count.”