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Winter homeless shelter within reach in Sonoma

Six homeless people died from exposure in Sonoma Valley last winter, Homeless Action Sonoma founder Annie Falandes said. She swore she would never let them go without shelter during winter again.

With winter fast approaching, Falandes has received approval from the county to build a set of 18 “tiny homes” to house 22 people at 18820 Highway 12, creating a temporary solution to keep people safe through the cold and wet months while they work out the details for a permanent shelter structure. The homes will provide water, electricity and sewer needs.

Winter is an especially difficult time for homeless people, Falandes said, mentioning an older man who “deteriorated” last year and who she feared may perish if faced with another unsheltered season in the cold and wet.

“Last week when the rains came, there was a bunch of people that got washed out,” Falandes said about homeless people who were living near the creek and lost all of their personal belongings to the rising water levels.

The proposed shelter would address the needs of chronic homeless people in the Valley, who unlike those who became homeless due to financial hardship, are more often to suffer from mental illness or drug addiction.

“Numerous studies have reported that approximately one-third of homeless persons have a serious mental illness, mostly schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The percentage is higher among those who are chronically homeless,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We're one of the few facilities that will take chronic homelessness,” Falandes said. “That's why I want to get this winter shelter up and running, even if it's partially running.”

The expenses for the shelter will be $320,250 per year, Falandes’ proposal says, with the cost per person starting at $14,556. But that cost could come down as residents transition out of the shelter and more residents come in, the proposal states.

“Every person we transition out to permanent housing opens up a slot for another. Every new person who comes in reduces out cost per person,” the proposal’s executive summary states.

HAS is being aided by the County, which helped to “streamline” the process, Falandes said. Sonoma Valley’s 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the need to address homelessness is more important now than ever.

“I’ve connected (Falandes) with Permit Sonoma, so that she understood exactly what was going to be required to erect even temporary Quickhaven huts on the site,” Gorin said, a type of tiny house used by shelters such as this.

Addressing homelessness during winter months was made all the more difficult when Sonoma Overnight Support’s (SOS) The Haven, a shelter in the parking lot of the police station on First Street West, was forced to dial back its program after city officials said it violated its permit in 2020 by offering evening services.

“It virtually shut The Haven down to what it is today,” Falandes said. “They have showers and they allow people to sleep in cars there. And that's all.”

In 2019, the Alliance Church partnered with SOS to offer a winter shelter for up to 15 people, who all shared the church’s open space at night. But the pandemic shut that down in 2020, leaving homeless residents out in the cold. Falandes added that many homeless people don’t like sharing one room together and would rather face life on the streets.

HAS’s shelter would provide clients with their own personal space while social workers attempt to transition residents out of the shelter and into more permanent housing.

The building process has already hit roadblocks, though. HAS is working to secure a trailer for an on-site manager and finalize a deal for wrap-around services, such as addiction and mental health care, with Sonoma Applied Village Services.

“I was hoping to have it done in December, and I’m still hoping to have it done in December,” Falandes said. “But it’s a Hail Mary at this point.”

Personnel for the shelter and resources for their housing on the site still need to be acquired, as well as other approvals regarding soil samples. Checks from donors have been written to cover the escrow on the property and pay for the QuickHaven tiny homes.

The shelter will be located next to Baker and Cook and Sonoma Blueprint in Boyes Hot Springs. The shelter staff will include a case worker, an administrator and a site manager.

Despite the obstacles that remain, Falandes is determined to have the shelter operating in December as the coldest and wettest weather of the year pushes in. For now, she’s trusting the process.

“The chronic homeless are the least trusting,” Falandes said. “But they're the most needy.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the wrap-around service group that Homeless Action Sonoma is intending to foster a deal with. HAS intends to foster a deal for wrap-around services with Sonoma Applied Village Services.

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