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More homeless in Sonoma find services, shelter at the Haven

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.”

The increase in the homeless numbers – though the three sitting around the patio table in back are convinced the numbers are as much as three times higher than any census – is finally getting some attention from the city.

Mayor Rachel Hundley met this week with King and Jenny Abramson, the Homeless and Community Services Manager of the county’s Community Development Commission, to go over new requirements that homeless services be coordinated at a county level. She said she and City Manager Cathy Capriola have also been talking with Supervisor Susan Gorin over how Sonoma fits in as a strategic partner in “coordinating services and making certain social and mental health services (are) more readily available in Sonoma Valley,” said Hundley.

It hasn’t always been that way. “A year ago, there was some skepticism in the community regarding whether we have homelessness inside the City of Sonoma and what the city’s role is in addressing it,” said Hundley.

But now, partly as a result of the discussion last winter over a “safe parking” program for homeless who sleep in cars, the conversations “shined a light on the fact that even people inside the City of Sonoma are susceptible to homelessness,” said Hundley.

But so far that hasn’t translated to more city funds for SOS, though the need for support has increased as the number of homelessness has skyrocketed. The city has budgeted $30,000 to SOS for the past 10 years, and did so again in the 2017-2018 budget, but “there was no request for additional funding and no change was included,” said Capriola. The City Manager pointed out that the City owns and provides the emergency shelter facility to SOS.

Meanwhile the budget to run SOS has almost doubled annually in the past few years, from $81,898 in 2011 to $255,133 in 2015, and $549,973 last year. The money comes from city and county grants, but a large part of it is King’s fundraising – private foundations, individuals, churches and local businesses, and annual fundraising events.

At a lunchtime at the Haven this Monday, there’s a spread on the kitchen counter, buffet-style. SOS also distributes burritos three times a week in the Springs, Friday dinners at La Luz and Wednesday lunches at the Grange – perhaps 30,000 meals in 2017. Much of the cost is borne by SOS, which regularly purchases food from Costco for the day-services at the Haven, though local businesses and restaurants donate food for the overnight guests at the shelter.

The number of people coming to the Haven for its day services has grown almost astronomically. “This year we’re 47 percent up just in the month of July,” said King. A like increase over the course of the year would mean the total could end up at almost 680 people using day services at the Haven. But the overnight shelter at SOS only serves 10 at a given time, and people can spend months on a list before their allowed to stay – if they can pass the vetting process.

There’s currently a waiting list of about double the 10 beds available at the Haven. “There’s a large number of people in poverty,” said King. “And they’re younger.”

The people beneath the patio umbrella haven’t been able to overnight at the Haven, yet, but they’re finding the day services a welcome respite from the uncertainties of homelessness. A lunch is available in the kitchen inside – fried chicken, watermelon, pastries. It’s a live-and-let-live atmosphere, which gets back to what Fitzhugh, a veteran of both creekside and mountain encampments, called Creek Law: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Email christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.