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Sonomans to spend 'One Cold Night' outdoors to spread awareness of homeless youth

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On Friday evening, as most people unwind from the workweek in the snug comfort of home, hundreds of homeless Sonoma County youth will be seeking shelter. They will dodge the expected rains under bridges and awnings, and ward off the cold any way that they can.

More than 60 community leaders leaders including 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin will sleep outside Friday night to bring attention to youth homelessness.

According to the Point in Time homeless count conducted annually by the county Community Development Commission, Sonoma County has a higher rate of youth homelessness per capita than either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Over 515 youth ages 12 to 24 are homeless in Sonoma County on any given night, and 88 percent of the 18 to 24-year-olds in that cohort sleep outside every night.

To spotlight the problem and raise funds toward a solution, Social Advocates for Youth, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit dedicated to youth advocacy, is hosting an event dubbed “One Cold Night” Friday where more than 60 community leaders will bundle up at six sites throughout the county to sleep outdoors like homeless kids do. In Sonoma, they’ll hunker down at Arnold Field, protected only by a donated sleeping bag and tarp.

“It’s going to be really interesting, dealing with the elements,” said volunteer camper Gary Saperstein. “It’s supposed to rain, and I’m not happy about the forecast, but when you’re homeless, the weather is what it is. You just deal with it.”

Saperstein, a Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau board member, will turn 59 on Friday, and when he was first approached by the nonprofit to participate, admitted to a knee-jerk “no.”

“But then I said to myself, ‘What do I want to do? How do I want to celebrate this birthday?’ I live here in a community I love and have a beautiful home. My heart is my home, and how fortunate am I? Why not give back on this last year of my 50s?”

Saperstein will join Gorin, City Council member Rachel Hundley, Sonoma Raceway’s Chelsea Lazzari, Chris Mahurin of the Santa Rosa Police Department, Ryan Lely of Pangloss Cellars and Repris Wines, Mike Sullivan of Benovia, and Jeremy Turpen of Wavestaff for what’s predicted to be a cold, wet night.

Each of the eight Sonoma “sleepers” committed to raise $2,500, and many of them will exceed their goal. Saperstein, for one, has raised nearly $4,000 through social media, email blasts, and by hosting an event at the General’s Daughter.

“We put envelopes at all the tables and went around and told people about the organization,” Saperstein said. “Pretty much everybody made a donation, from $3 to $1,000.”

Shelby Harris, communications and marketing manager at SAY, says such generosity “speaks to the power” of the event.

According to the 2018 homeless count, 65 percent of the county’s homeless have lived here for a decade or longer. Forty-two percent were involved in the foster care system, 48 percent have a GED or high school diploma, 72 percent are non-Hispanic/Latino, and 56 percent have been homeless for one year or more. If safe, affordable housing could be found in the area, 90 percent of the county’s homeless individuals would accept it.

Social Advocates for Youth’s mission focuses on kids, who become homeless for myriad reasons.

“Homelessness at any age is very complex, with many sources and causes,” Harris said. “But what we see with the youth population is that many are asked to leave home at 18, even though they still need care and assistance. Many have been in foster care, often leaving without the life skills needed outside that system. Many are LGBTQ, which can lead to being kicked out. And the high cost of living in Sonoma County is another factor, where wages don’t always coincide with the cost.”

SAY provides a menu of services, from crisis services for homeless youth, long-term and short-term housing, job training, job placement and mental health support. The organization even has a tattoo removal program for people who were previously affiliated with gangs.

The money raised during “One Cold Night” is fundamental to execution of their mission.

“These are critical funds that will support crisis services and housing services, and mental health and employment services for young people,” Harris said. “We operate one of the largest mental health services in Sonoma County, as well as programming in 30 schools.”

The “sleepers” will use sleeping bags donated by the Santa Rosa Soroptomist group, which will be laundered and distributed to homeless people after the event. The Sonoma High varsity baseball team will be at the ballpark all night, assisting the campers with whatever is needed. “They’ll be guides to the field, helping out, working in shifts during the fundraiser,” said coach Rich Blanchard.

When dawn breaks, the “sleepers” will decamp to SAY headquarters in Santa Rosa, where they’ll be fed a hot meal donated by Sally Tomatoes. The CEO of SAY will debrief participants, who will likely carry an indelible life experience forward.

“We hope they will take this advocacy forward throughout their lives,” Harris said.

Links to the Sonoma “sleepers” are available at OneColdNight.org, and will remain open to take donations until January 2019. Donations can also be made directly to SAY’s general campaign, and other volunteer opportunities are detailed at volunteer@SAYSC.org.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.