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Volunteers work on sheltering homeless Sonomans

By Kendall Fields/INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

In Sonoma, the homeless aren’t as visible as in other cities.

Seldom can someone be found panhandling in front of local grocery stores or on the Plaza square. We almost never see people sleeping on sidewalks, huddled in doorways.

But tucked on side streets, under bridges, camped out in parking lots or crammed with seven others in a tiny apartment, the homeless population is growing in Sonoma, just as it is in the rest of the country.

Elizabeth Kemp, a local Sonoma Overnight Shelter volunteer and one of the first members of the free, warm-burrito-providing Brown Baggers, has been working to help Sonoma’s homeless for more than 30 years. In the last 10 years, she says, the homeless population in the Valley has increased with the recession and an increasingly disproportionate low-wage to high-living-cost ratio. Kemp helps with Sonoma County’s annual homeless count, and in the last year counted more than 200 homeless people – though she says accurate homeless numbers are difficult to determine. But, at least 200 homeless people live in the Valley permanently. Most live here and work here, she says.

Kemp explains that the term “homeless” is broad and an overgeneralization, citing people who live on a different friend’s couch each week, or out of their cars, as technically homeless but are more accurately defined as “inadequately sheltered.” The “unsheltered” people, on the other hand, camp out in empty fields, on less travelled streets or under bridges.

But where do these unsheltered homeless go when it’s too cold or too wet to safely live outside?

“Rain drives them under the bridges at places like Maxwell Park or St. Leo’s (Catholic Church),” Kemp says.

After a string of homeless deaths during bitter Bay Area winter weather, Kemp and longtime FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping) volunteers Sandra and Alan Piotter, along with 20 other compassionate Sonomans, are trying to answer this emergency housing question with the creation of the Sonoma Severe Weather Shelter.

FISH and SOS, along with members of the faith community and several churches, teamed up to provide a warm, safe, dry place for homeless to sleep when temperatures dip to 32 degrees, or below 40 degrees while rainy. In January, 25 volunteers met to discuss creating a rotating shelter like other places in the country have Sandra said, noting inspiration from Washington County, Ore.

Kemp and Sandra say the number of homeless people – or people on the verge of homelessness – is on the rise in Sonoma. “There used to be inexpensive places people could live,” Kemp said, “but now even someone working full-time on minimum wage can’t afford to rent, or can’t find a place to rent.”

“The recession dropped people to a hard place,” shelter co-organizer and volunteer Bill Hutchinson explained. “The community needs to look at its own economic engine, the living wage especially. We are aware of the need for an increase (in the minimum wage).”

The local homeless population varies from single men and women who struggle with meth addictions or alcoholism, to migrant workers who are so underpaid they can’t afford housing, to families with working parents who must choose whether to pay rent or feed their children every day. “For every homeless person,” Kemp says, “there’s a story, and a lot of them live rough.”

Ninety percent of the homeless she has worked with, Kemp says, suffer from some sort of mental illness. “It’s really sad to see someone deteriorate,” she says, adding she would like to see the city and the county get more involved in helping local homeless and the untreated mentally ill.

Kemp believes it is important to help these homeless, regardless of their lifestyle choices, for no other reason than the simple fact that they are human. “Would you have them die?” she asks, as an alternative to feeding and sheltering the hungry and cold because they have a drug addiction or they have an untreated mental illness. “We are all human beings and we have no idea what started them off on that road.”

And as to the notion that there isn’t homelessness in the Valley because it can’t be easily seen, Alan says “I think we are perceptive enough to know that Sonoma is not so different from other places, and part of this is working on awareness so that (the community) knows homeless are here.”

In 1972, Sandra Piotter recalls, FISH put homeless people – many were just passing through – in hotels. In the 1980s, makeshift emergency shelters were created at Paul’s Resort in El Verano or in a rented apartment. With the gentrification of Boyes Hot Springs and little community interest in building affordable housing communities, Kemp says it’s become increasingly difficult to shelter homeless people.

The Severe Weather Shelter services will begin Sunday, Feb. 16, with the program officially opening when weather conditions apply. The Brown Baggers will provide two hot meals – dinner upon arrival at the shelter and breakfast with coffee in the morning.

So far, the group has purchased 10 blow-up camping mats with money from volunteers and money donated from some area churches. It has also received a donation of 10 backpacks. “Everything has fallen into place really well,” Sandra says, adding the group is looking for a place to wash laundry after each shelter night.

Sandra only expects a few homeless people to attend the shelter at first, but once trust builds in the community, she and her colleagues are hopeful that this will become a sustainable model for sheltering homeless in the worst of weather conditions in coming years. Alan and Hutchinson recently met with Sonoma County 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin to discuss county involvement in the program and to seek advice on finding a more permanent shelter location.

Shelter hours are 6:30 pm to 6:30 am the following morning. People who are interested in shelter services fill out a homeless management information survey at SOS and are told where to meet (either at La Luz Center or Sonoma Valley Regional Library) and when to get on a shuttle that will take them to whichever church is being used as the shelter. People hoping to use the shelter will be screened before going to the shelter and again upon arrival, and must agree to certain behaviors – including no drugs or alcohol, and no weapons.

The group has more than a dozen volunteers on call to run the shelter, with two pairs of volunteers monitoring the facility in two shifts each night it is open, and with churches designating days they can have the shelter onsite.

The shelter group needs volunteers to help with set up, shelter hosts, transportation and meal preparation.

The group is also looking to fill a few volunteer positions in particular, including someone to escort shelter attendees from the library or La Luz in the shuttle to the shelter and someone to help with the homeless survey at the SOS Haven. So far, the group has had two orientations for volunteers. It will continue to train volunteers throughout the year with more details to come.

The severe weather shelter also welcomes funding and donations in kind. Donations can be sent to FISH, P.O. Box 507, with reference to Severe Weather Shelter, or online via the FISH PayPal link at friendsinsonomahelping.org/get-involved.

“A community that cares about everyone in it is a rich community,” Alan said.

For more information about the shelter, volunteering or donating, email sonomafish@gmail.com or call 996-0111 and reference Sonoma Severe Weather Shelter.