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Captain Obvious Researches Homelessness

Columnist: Bob Andrews
July, 2016 Issue

Bob Andrews
All articles by columnist

Homelessness was much less obvious in Sonoma and Healdsburg, our county’s most high-profile tourist destinations. I wondered why.

In a recent Press Democrat article by Paul Gullikson, a downtown Santa Rosa merchant wondered whether “the homeless are coming to Santa Rosa because they know this is where the services are.” I sensed a likely investigation for Captain Obvious.
From my own frequent observations, I noticed homelessness was much less obvious in Sonoma and Healdsburg, our county’s most high-profile tourist destinations. I wondered: Do these cities have a different approach—perhaps different law enforcement policies—or just many fewer homeless services than Santa Rosa?
To answer the question, I started at the top. I telephoned the Healdsburg city manager. He wasn’t available. I left a message. I didn’t receive a return call.
I did the same for the city of Sonoma. I called and asked for the city manager and was directed to the city clerk. She wasn’t available. I left a message. I didn’t receive a return call. I called again and reached a woman in the clerk’s office. I asked: Are there any homeless shelters in Sonoma? She replied, “I think there’s one called The Heathen.”
I was dumbfounded. The Heathen? Really?
The woman gave me the telephone number, which I used to call a shelter actually called “The Haven.” I reached an answering machine informing me that “all our shelter beds are taken.”
I did an internet search for “homeless shelters in Healdsburg,” and there were a number of results. But, with one exception, all of these “Healdsburg” shelters were in Santa Rosa (8), Petaluma (2) and Guerneville (1).
My next step was to research the Sonoma County Human Services Department (SCHS), which has more than 930 employees and an annual budget of more than $220 million. Most of the money actually comes from the federal and state governments, with less than $20 million paid out of the county’s general fund. SCHS administers programs in four areas: economic assistance (Medi-Cal, general assistance, and food stamps—now called CalFresh or SNAP); employment and training (called CalWorks and Job Link); family, youth and children’s services (including child protective services and Valley of the Moon Children’s Home); and adult and aging services (including adult protective services, veterans’ services and in-home supportive services, which employs, on a contract basis, many in-home workers who are not county employees). In all, there are more than 38 different programs with different matching formulae for the county to qualify for state and federal funds.
Note that none of those general categories specifically covers homelessness. I’m told that the state of California put some money aside to combat homelessness, with a goal of getting people into an SCHS program called “Rent Right,” which is administered in partnership with Catholic Charities.
There’s no residency requirement for these various program benefits, which are available to U.S. citizens or properly documented non-citizens. Non-documented parents can apply for benefits for their U.S. citizen children. Applicants must provide identification and can apply online or by telephone, but most people actually go to SCHS offices, which, until just recently, have been only in Santa Rosa. The county recently decided to open a branch office in Petaluma.
I interviewed a retired SCHS employee and an active-duty Santa Rosa police officer. Each of them agreed there’s a very long list of homeless services available in Santa Rosa, provided by Catholic Charities, various churches, Redwood Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), DAAC, St. Vincent de Paul,the Community Support Network, the Santa Rosa Homeless Outreach Services Team and myriad others. Services include housing assistance, counseling and referrals, meals, clothing, tents, sleeping bags, personal hygiene products, showers, haircuts, dental care, vision care and mobile medical clinics, in addition to what’s available from SCHS.
My two interviewees had other valuable input, including: housing costs are too high in Sonoma County and there isn’t enough of it; the homeless count may include as many as 3,000 people sleeping in cars or couch-surfing; about 20 percent of the homeless want to “live rough” and won’t accept housing aid; many poor people can’t build income high enough or fast enough to afford housing; raising the minimum wage for the working poor may actually disqualify them for certain state and federal benefits administered by the county; and no one in Sonoma County seems to have an answer to the question, “Who does ‘homelessness’ belong to?”
Asked whether the homeless are specifically targeting Santa Rosa, the police officer said, “Absolutely. Cities that offer services get the homeless. I’ve talked to folks who’ve arrived by bus and said they heard about good services here.”
Captain Obvious asks this last question: How does a city like Santa Rosa ever meet the needs of the homeless when the very fact of offering services attracts more homeless to the city?



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