Counting homeless in Sonoma Valley
Advocates question accuracy of annual count
From the beginning, there were challenges when volunteers for Point-In-Time wandered into a board room at the Sonoma Police Station at 5 a.m. Friday morning to be debriefed on the annual census of Sonoma Valley’s homeless population.
While the results for the Point-In-Time count have yet to be published, Francisco Kilgore, associate director of homeless organization at Sonoma Overnight Support, isn’t holding his breathe when it comes to the accuracy of the count.
Between the problems of the pandemic and last minute planning for the census itself, the Point-In-Time homeless count is unlikely to be accurate, Kilgore said.
“COVID-19 severely disrupted all the planning efforts and have made an already difficult logisitical challenge, like counting people in the Valley, even harder,” Kilgore said.
Maps that showed volunteers their coverage area the day of the count, Kilgore said. A Community Development Commission worker participating in data collection had been hired only weeks before. Volunteers walked into the Sonoma police station believing they were part of a different count for the northern Sonoma Valley area. And outreach efforts to recruit “guides,” homeless people or formerly homeless residents who have knowledge of popular sheltering spots, produced just one single participant.
But Kilgore said the main challenge was the limited time given to perform a census of the areas homeless residents, given the growing need in Sonoma Valley.
“The count is broken up into three sections: first thing is the point in time count itself which happens on one day usually in January every other year,” Kilgore said. “There’s two other factors in the count as well, which is the taking care, which is counting individuals who are sheltered; and the subsequent survey, which is conducted by usually homeless individuals who know their community.”
The Point-in-Time count was delayed in 2022 due to the omicron wave of COVID, and scheduled to take place a month later. Sonoma Valley also does not have a homeless shelter and uses winter hotel vouchers and a Safe Parking program to house homeless residents.
I rode along with Kilgore and his father throughout Boyes Hot Springs neighborhoods and underneath bridges. But we were unable to find any unhoused residents in the area, despite the majority of SOS clients coming from the Boyes Hot Springs, according to Kilgore.
“Even thought you might have guides along with you -- which in this case we didn’t for various reasons -- many people have grown adept at hiding themselves because of necessity,” Kilgore said.
The fruitless effort to locate homeless residents on Friday goes against the data SOS has collected over the last few years from clients they’ve served at Sonoma Springs Community Hall and the SOS office on First Street West near the Field of Dreams. Last year, SOS provided more than 50,000 meals to Sonoma Valley residents in 2022, which have been given to people facing homelessness and people who are housing insecure.
Even officially recorded homeless individuals may not be accurate. Volunteers are told by Point-In-Time to mark down individuals when they see encampments or cars with personal belongings in them, which is “essentially a good guess from a distance,” Kilgore said.
The Point-In-Time count for Sonoma Valley in past years has shown the homeless population falling, recording its lowest number in 10 years in Sonoma Valley, but the need for services has grown against that trend.
Part of those disparate data points is the oscillating image of what homelessness looks like. It could be someone who couch-surfing, or a college students, or an elder person taking shelter with their children.
“You never know what homelessness looks like and all of its forms,” Kilgore said. “We have an image of what homelessness looks like... a tent in front of a supermarket or people panhandling... but that’s a fraction of the full picture.”