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City of Sonoma stands by homeless shelter

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The City of Sonoma put its money where its homeless mouths are Monday, when the City Council approved $20,000 in one-time funding for Sonoma Overnight Support’s homeless services.

Council members approved the funds in a 5-0 vote, and appointed an ad-hoc council subcommittee consisting of Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti and Rachel Hundley to evaluate the city’s ongoing partnership with SOS which, among other things, contains an agreement to budget $30,000 annually toward operation of the nonprofit through 2030.

Sonoma Overnight Support, which operates the 10-bed shelter at 151 First St. W. known as the Haven, sought the funding after opting out of a county grant program that cost SOS about $41,000 in funds.

SOS announced in December it would withdraw from the grant program, after county officials denied their request for exemptions to a new federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program intended to streamline homeless services.

HUD’s new program adheres to a model known within homeless services as “housing first,” which operates under the premise that the best way to alleviate homelessness is to find housing first. Once a person is housed, proponents of the model attest, only then can other issues behind homelessness – substance abuse, mental health – be addressed effectively.

But, according to SOS director Kathy King, the “housing first” requirements go against longstanding guidelines for admittance to the Haven, including that clients be drug and alcohol free and that prioritization is given to Sonoma Valley residents.

At the March 5 meeting, King detailed why SOS turned down the grant funds.

“It’s a safe-and-sober shelter,” King told the council. “We wouldn’t have a chance to say, ‘We don’t think that person is right for our shelter.’”

King also gave the City Council an update on services at the Haven. She said the shelter is averaging about 30 clients per day, who come for meals, showers, laundry and to meet with a case manager. According to King, the Haven served 33,148 meals in 2017, up nearly 5,000 from previous years. She said about 75 percent of clients are from the City of Sonoma, an additional 20 percent from the Valley and 5 percent from other areas.

The county’s “point in time” single-day count of area homeless took place Feb. 23 and, while the official numbers won’t be made available until May, King said her group tallied 18 homeless that day in the city limits.

All five Council members offered their support for SOS’s decision to bypass the county grant funds.

Councilmember Rachel Hundley, who will join Agrimonti as part of the ad-hoc SOS taskforce, said that, while Sonoma may see homelessness on a “smaller scale” than bigger cities, it remains a serious issue for the city to address.

“Sonoma is not isolated from the same things happening in other cities,” said Hundley.

According to the city staff report, the agreement between SOS and the city hasn’t been reviewed since the partnership was initially established in 2005. The taskforce, among other things, will join with city staff and SOS officials to assess current homeless services and update the agreement between the city and SOS as well as strategies for homeless services going forward.

King said Sonoma Overnight Support will launch a fundraising campaign to make up for the remaining $21,000 that wouldn’t be received through the county grant program.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.