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Bill Lynch: Sonoma’s legacy of support for homeless

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It is possible to live in our beautiful Valley of the Moon and believe that there are no homeless people here.

One would be wrong in that belief.

As recently as last July, Kathy King, the executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), reported dramatic increases in homeless people between 2016 and 2017 from 21 to 91 inside the city and an increase from 65 to 98 homeless in unincorporated areas of the Valley.

In 2017 alone, they provided nearly 34,000 meals to the hungry.

And that count is probably understated, as homeless folks tend to avoid being counted.

SOS, the organization that directly addresses the needs of the homeless people in our town, operates “The Haven,” an overnight shelter on First Street West adjacent to the Sonoma Police Department and Sonoma City Council chambers. Its ancillary food programs distribute thousands of meals to the hungry here every day. The have a day, drop-in program and also operate an extra winter shelter program from December to March providing extra shelter at the Sonoma Alliance Church on Watmaugh Road

The local nonprofit organization was the subject of a story in the Index-Tribune recently (“City Stands By Homeless Shelter,” March 9) because it chose not to apply for a grant from Sonoma County, even though it is always in need of funds. Their reasons, specified in a six-page letter to the county are directly related to the original vision of its founders that the Haven be community-centered with local control over who is admitted the most important. Accepting the grant would possibly have given up that important local say in how the shelter is operated.

Sonomans have, for decades, taken pride in providing for those in need among us.

Long before there was the Haven, there was FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping), and even before that wonderful organization was founded in 1976, local churches provided help to the poor and homeless here.

The SOS organization, although an independent nonprofit today, remains true to those roots, connected to, and dependent upon local congregations and community-based organizations like FISH and service clubs, as well as the City of Sonoma itself, which last week approved $20,000 in one-time funding for SOS to cover half of the county grant the nonprofit bypassed.

My earliest memories of this effort date back to the 1970s when people like, Jerry Casson, Adele Harrison and Peg McAleese and later Peg Steele and Elizabeth Kemp, put together a confederation of volunteers who found ways to feed, house and cloth the people in our Valley who were in desperate need.

It was hard-working, ecumenical, seat-of-the-pants kind of group that relied on the generosity and goodwill of local pastors, their congregations, service clubs and anybody else willing to help.

They founded FISH. Then Ligia Booker and others founded La Luz. But those early-day volunteers helped each other.

Shelter for the homeless was done on a case-by-case basis and usually a scramble to call in favors, beg, or borrow temporary space to get unfortunate souls out of the cold.

One of the early La Luz board members, Sy Lenz, was prevailed upon to help establish a more permanent and secure shelter.

While Elizabeth Kemp was part of that effort, she and others were also developing shelters for seasonal farm workers, some of whom slept under bridges along Sonoma Creek for the lack of any place to stay. With the cooperation of local churches and local vintners, safe places, with at least toilet facilities, tents and sleeping bags, were created.

But a more permanent solution for the year-round homeless challenge was needed.

In 1998, the first SOS shelter was set up in a bathroom at Sonoma Christian Fellowship church on Andrieux Street.

It was far from an ideal solution, consisting of a set of bunk beds squeezed into a former toilet stall.

Its purpose was to provide temporary shelter for a few nights until better housing could be found.

FISH, SOS, Vintage House and the local ministerial association still had to call in favors for special housing cases.

In 2002 for example, they managed to persuade the owners of Sonoma Valley Inn to put up a family of five and their two dogs during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was always a struggle, because the very small and cramped temporary shelter could not handle more than a couple of individuals at a time.

By 2003, Lenz, by then president of SOS, was lobbying anybody and everybody, and especially the City of Sonoma for help in sustaining a decent facility for the homeless. Out of his efforts came an agreement to build a new shelter on city property near the police station.

But it wasn’t until September of 2007 that the four-bedroom emergency overnight shelter we see today was opened. It exists today as a legacy of those early volunteers who did the best they could with what they had at the time.

Yes. There are homeless people in our Valley of the Moon, but thanks to those who founded SOS and those who volunteer and support SOS and related helping organizations like the Brown Baggers today, there are still Sonomans willing and able to help.