Caring for the homeless and helping them reestablish themselves as self-sufficient is a daunting task.
It’s now winter in the North Bay and, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a healthy dose of rain over the season to ease our worrisome drought.
But if it’s raining, think about this: Thousands of people in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties will be sleeping outside with nothing to shelter them from the cold and wet. They’re homeless, unable to find a dry spot in any of the myriad public shelters, because there’s literally “no room at the inn.”
In Sonoma County alone, 75 percent of the homeless spend each night without a roof over their heads. That’s more than 3,000 people. In Marin, it’s about 250 to 300, and, in Napa, another 250. If those statistics aren’t sobering enough, try this one: According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Sonoma County has thehighest population of homeless youth (age 24 and under) of any nonurban county in the United States. Yep, right here in paradise.
Caring for the homeless and helping them reestablish themselves as self-sufficient is a daunting task willingly taken on by hundreds of different nonprofit organizations throughout the North Bay. Working together through coalitions, these groups provide a wide variety of programs and services to help provide not only shelter, but food, clothing, child care, job skills training and personal development assistance.
One of the champions of the homeless is Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless. Since 1981 (except for a nearly eight-year hiatus from 1994 to 2002, when she traveled the world as executive director of the Association for Humanistic Psychology), Berland, who also cofounded the Redwood Empire Food Bank, has been actively working with the homeless in Sonoma County. It was in 1981, while serving as director of the Sonoma County Human Services Commission, when she realized how pervasive the homeless problem was—and that there were no services that could help.
“People would find a job here but not a house,” she says. “Or they’d find a house in Humboldt County but not a job. They just kept moving back and forth hoping to find both. We found kids as old as nine who’d never been to school.”
To address the problem head-on, Berland and the County Human Services Commission she directed organized an Emergency Housing Task Force. In 1989, it evolved to become the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, a nonprofit coalition of service providers, advocates, religious congregations, civic organizations, businesses and individuals working to end homelessness and assist people who lost their homes.
Since its inception, the organization has helped build the homeless shelter and service system in the county and has promoted community knowledge of and participation in the issue through conferences, monthly public meetings, speeches, a newsletter, website and media outreach. It also conducted the very first demographic study on local homelessness (a model later consulted by Stanford University). And though it was started as a coalition for program development, service coordination, advocacy, funding and community education and involvement, 12 years ago, it began providing direct services to the homeless, including administering federal emergency food and shelter funding to support local service agencies. It produces and distributes Homeless Resource Guides and works with the Baha’i congregation in Rohnert Park to provide voicemail boxes to homeless people as well. It also runs the “Winter Warmth” countywide survival gear clearinghouse to provide coats, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing and other items to help those without shelter simply make it through the cold nights.
Who are the homeless?
One of Berland’s biggest objectives is to educate “those of us who are still housed” about who the homeless really are “and to let people know that homelessness can be ended. It’s not a natural part of society. We know how to end it—by creating affordable and Permanent Supportive housing [providing services for people with disabilities]. We just need the resources and political will to do so.
“We can’t treat people who are homeless as if they’re a different species,” Berland states.
“There’s a stereotype that they’re all transients clothed in rags,” she continues. “This is false. In Sonoma County, 80 percent are local residents, and more than half of them had homes for at least 10 years before they became homeless. The number is even higher—88 percent—if you include neighboring counties like Marin, Napa and Mendocino.
“These people did not invade the county. They’re local; they paid rent. They’re our neighbors. Most of them are homeless because they lost their jobs or their families dissolved,” she says.
Only 15 to 20 percent are chronic homeless, living without housing for extended periods and suffering from physical disabilities, severe mental illness or drug abuse. The reason people tend to believe most of the homeless are mentally ill, alcoholics or drug abusers is because, according to Homeforall Marin, persons struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems are often the most visible segment of the population, even though they represent the smallest percentage.
More men than women are homeless. The ethnicity of the homeless “pretty much reflects the population of the county,” Berland says, with no greater concentration of one ethnic group versus another.
Throughout the North Bay, the largest homeless populations are centered in the larger cities and towns—Santa Rosa, San Rafael, Novato and Napa—but the problem extends into the more rural areas of the counties, where those living outside may feel the safest.
The homeless gravitate toward the larger population centers, “because the main cities have the bulk of services for them, plus transportation and public facilities,” says Joe Hegedus, managing director of the Marin Partnership to End Homelessness, which is a coalition along the lines of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless. “But we also have a lot camping out where they’re not supposed to be. The beauty of Marin is that you can go two minutes outside of town and you’re in the hills. The parks back up to open space that’s generally not patrolled. [The homeless] go wherever they can to find a spot where they won’t get rousted out.”
“It’s important to understand that ‘homeless’ is not a type of person,” Berland continues. “Homelessness is a circumstance that people pass through. Over the course of a year, about 10,000 people in Sonoma County become homeless. And, for the great majority of them, it’s a temporary situation.”
Getting a grasp on the full reality of the number of homeless is difficult, Berland says. Every two years, during a designated week at the end of January, HUD requires a local, 24-hour count of all homeless in shelters and living on the streets. The next count will be taken the end of this month.
Despite all well-intentioned efforts, “there are always substantial undercounts,” largely because it’s impossible to find and count everyone in one day; this is especially true because it’s illegal to live outside and many people are hiding in fear, she explains. “People are actually criminalized for being homeless.” The last count was taken in January 2013. At that time, there were 4,280 homeless accounted for in Sonoma County, 933 in Marin and more than 600 in Napa. Sources interviewed for this story all say those numbers are conservative.
What causes homelessness?
“Most of the time, when we ask people what led to their homelessness, they answer that they can’t afford housing—they either lost their income or they just don’t have enough income. The real issue is housing availability and affordability,” Hegedus says. “Substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence are other major causes, but the nexus is the housing and income imbalance.”
The vacancy rate for rentals in the North Bay is at its lowest ever, hovering at 1 percent. Meanwhile, the cost to rent has skyrocketed. Marin is among the most expensive rental markets in the United States; in California, only San Francisco and Silicon Valley are higher. Sonoma and Napa counties are also extremely expensive.
According to Homeforall Marin, a family would need to earn $33.85 per hour, working full-time, to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Earning minimum wage, they’d need to clock 169 hours per week to afford a moderately priced two-bedroom apartment.
While Marin has a high per-capita income ($55,696 annually), most of the employment opportunities within the county are in lower-paying trades such as retail, food service, hospitality and personal services. The issue is the same in Sonoma and Napa counties, where per-capita income is much lower ($32,898 in Sonoma, $35,195 in Napa).
The wage/rent imbalance also directly impacts younger people just entering the job market, who often can’t earn enough to afford to rent an apartment—if they could find one. Beyond that, many young people find themselves homeless after they “age out” of foster care once they turn 18, plus “there are family arguments and the kids end up on the streets,” Berland explains. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of our community. About 95 percent of the youth who are homeless aren’t sheltered at all. They can’t go to the adult shelters unless they’re at least 18 years old.”
The Great Recession also contributed directly to the homeless problem in the North Bay. Mike Johnson is the chief executive officer of Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), headquartered in Petaluma. “After the economic collapse in 2008, our 2011 headcount showed a 38.8 percent increase in homelessness in Sonoma County since 2009. A lot were people who were economically marginalized and already hanging on by their fingernails,” he explains.
When the recession hit, they lost whatever grip they had. In 2013, according to Johnson, the county saw a 2 percent decrease in the homeless numbers, mostly among families. “But that still means we’re dealing with 37 percent more homeless than we had back in 2007,” he says.
Is there a fix?
Experts interviewed here say there will always be homelessness, but it doesn’t need to be on the scale that we’ve become accustomed to.
“Homelessness is a current paradigm. Things really shifted in the 1980s after [Gov. Ronald] Reagan shut down all the inpatient psychiatric hospitals,” Johnson says. “Before that, thementally disabled could live there permanently. All of them were turned loose into society at that point and many ended up on the streets. Shelters became defacto housing for that population, and still are.”
So providing more mental health facilities is one answer.
Fixing the housing dynamic is another.
“It wouldn’t be a quick fix by any means,” says Hegedus. Construction of “efficiency units” (smaller-scale living quarters) would be one way to approach it, he believes. “We need new developments and new subsidies.”
And then there’s what Utah did. It discovered that the average homeless person in Salt Lake City cost the government more than $16,000 per year. To put them in housing only cost the state $11,000 per year. Today, Utah’s “Housing First” program, now in its 10th year, has been heralded as a tremendous success, not only for the homeless but for the state’s coffers.
The reality is, “homelessness is everybody’s problem,” concludes Johnson. “To end homelessness, we must seek solutions that involve collaborative efforts, systemically sharing best practices that reduce homelessness across the county, as opposed to focusing more locally.”
The Living Room
“We’re the bottom of the safety net.” —Cheryl Parkinson
Shelters in Santa Rosa provide overnight housing for many homeless people, but when dawn comes, it’s back to the streets. This is particularly a problem for women and children, many of whom have escaped abusive circumstances only to find themselves at risk and vulnerable when the shelter doors close for the day.
But, there is a haven. The Living Room is a warm, safe and comfortable environment that gives women and children a place to go to get food, clothing, toiletries, training and companionship.
Founded by the Church of the Incarnation in 1993, The Living Room started out serving about five women per day, three days per week. It now logs more than 19,000 participant visits per year, serving 50 breakfasts and 70 lunches each day. The facility is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the church grounds, located on the 600 block of Cherry Street.
It’s a friendly place, with fragrant kitchen smells wafting through the dining area. Breakfast is ready at 9 a.m. and the kitchen serves lunch at 11:30 a.m.
“It’s a little like an episode of ‘Chopped’ [a Food Network show that features mystery grocery bags],” says Cheryl Parkinson, executive director. “The volunteer cooks really don’t know what foods they’ll have to cook with until they show up.” Food is purchased from the Redwood Empire Food Bank at 19 cents per pound (produce is free). Harvest for the Hungry also donates produce. The focus is on healthy, nutritious dishes, using as much fresh food as possible.
About 70 percent of the women who use The Living Room spend their nights in shelters. Parkinson says 20 percent live outside and 10 percent are able to find shelter in an automobile. Once The Living Room closes in the afternoon, the women go elsewhere—often the library or other open facilities—until nightfall.
“We’re the bottom of the safety net,” Parkinson says. “Many shelters have programs and benchmarks, but some [women] don’t make it through the programs. They don’t comply or they time out—they drop in here and we follow a behavior model. As long as they behave and follow the rules, they’ll get a meal.” No drug tests, no breathalyzers, no minimum income required.
When it gets cold, The Living Room opens a little earlier, gives out more supplies and the staff keeps tabs on the women to find out where they’re going (for safety reasons). “We find our women really do look out for each other. It’s good for them to have connections with someone who knows where they’re going.”
Parkinson says homeless people, in general, want to be invisible when they’re sleeping outside. “That makes it difficult. We had a donation of some top-quality, absolutely magnificent sleeping bags. And they were orange. Most of these women are hiding at night and they put their sleeping bags in a garbage bag so it doesn’t get stolen. A top-end piece of equipment isn’t always helpful, because it might make them a target for someone stealing stuff. Sometimes a $20 sleeping bag is best because they can hang on to it longer,” Parkinson explains.
But while they might want to be invisible on some levels, there’s a dire need to be noticed as well.
Recently, The Living Room had women engage in an art therapy program to create prayer flags. Parkinson was almost overcome with emotion when she saw some of the artwork. “Several of them had a theme of noticing them and recognizing that they’re people,” she says. “One flag said ‘See Me.’ Another said ‘Homeless People Have Beating Hearts.’ Some real basic concepts that people miss when they generalize about the homeless population.
“Homeless isn’t a type of person,” Parkinson says. “It’s a circumstance they’re in.”
Community Action Napa Valley
“Right now there are 26 families on our waiting list.” —Drene Johnson
Since it was started under President Lyndon Johnson’s antipoverty campaign more than 50 years ago, Community Action Napa Valley, better known as CAN-V, has proven it “Can Do.”
It runs six programs that serve multiple Napa Valley residents, including shelter and housing for the homeless, Meals on Wheels for seniors, smoking cessation assistance, a food bank, a culinary training program and CAN-V child care.
“We serve all ages,” says Drene Johnson, executive director.
For the 600-plus homeless in Napa Valley and American Canyon, CAN-V has two 24-hour shelters, one serving adults and another for homeless families. It also has an emergency winter shelter. Its HOPE Resource Center on Fourth Street in Napa offers showers, toilets, mail pick-up, phones, laundry and other basic services for the homeless and serves about 85 per day. It also offers medical care, job development, housing assistance, legal aid and mental health outreach.
CAN-V’s entire intake for its strict, clean and sober programs is run through the HOPE Center.
The emergency shelter doesn’t operate under clean and sober rules, “but they have to behave,” Johnson says. Doors open at 5 p.m. and those spending the night must leave at 8 a.m.
“Napa has its chronic homeless who prefer to live in campsites,” Johnson says. “But we see everything at the shelters. The earthquake [last August] displaced many people, and we’re also noticing a trend on the senior end. But families remain our biggest problem. Right now there are 26 families on our waiting list,” and the existing family shelter—a former church—can only provide accommodations for seven families at any given time.
The problem in Napa, like Sonoma and Marin counties, is the lack of affordable housing.
“There’s just nowhere for the overflow of people to go,” Johnson says. “But we’re not unique. The problem is the same across the whole country.”
Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa
“Every person has dignity and worth. We should be wrapping our arms around these people and helping them.” —Jennielynn Holmes
Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa is the largest homeless services provider between the Golden Gate Bridge and Oregon. Its programs are focused in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Humboldt counties, according to Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for the organization.
In Sonoma County, it operates all three of Santa Rosa’s homeless shelters—Samuel L. Jones Hall in Southwest Santa Rosa (138 beds), the Family Support Center on A Street (138 beds), and the Nightingale at Brookwood Health Center. The latter is a 13-bed facility that provides bedrest and recuperation for homeless people discharged from hospitals and recovering from illness or surgery. It’s saved local hospitals about $14 million in costs over the last few years, according to Holmes. A Homeless Services Center in Santa Rosa provides “dignity services” such as showers, mail, and laundry.
Catholic Charities also operates a 50-bed emergency shelter during the winter months, “with the plan to have this become an annual program,” Holmes says. It also runs Safe Parking, a new program that lets people sleep in their cars in designated areas, as long as they don’t leave the footprint of their car (meaning they have to stay in the car and can’t set up things like tailgates or outdoor cots).“We bring out food and blankets, whatever they need,” Holmes says. “This program has lots of room for expansion and we’re looking for partners—mostly businesses and churches—willing to offer their parking lots up for overnight parking.”
Its Coach-2-Career employment readiness program at the Family Support Center is a seven-week course that helps with computer skills, résumé writing, coaching for proper work attire and interviewing skills. There’s even a clothing closet where a homeless (or formerly homeless) person can select “hire attire.”
“About 76 percent of the people who go through the program find work within six months,” Holmes says. “Last year, that was 191 jobs.”
Catholic Charities also holds leases on multiple houses, which it subleases to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pass muster with the landlords.
“When the recession hit and foreclosures bubbled up, many people entered the rental market, so it pushed out those who were in the housing,” Holmes explains. “Meanwhile, landlords bumped up their requirements on rental units, making it more expensive and restrictive to qualify for housing. We hold the leases [on these properties]; the landlord has confidence in our agency and we sublease to our clients.”
In Napa County, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa has a “Rainbow House,” located on Jefferson Street, which provides transitional housing for single young mothers (ages 18 to 29) who are pregnant or already have children. There, it offers parenting classes and employment services and referrals. Weekly group sessions are offered, as well as nutritional counseling, financial/budget planning and “life skills” classes. Phase II is co-located with Rainbow House and provides self-contained units for those needing case management and program structure before moving to full independence.
Helping the homeless “is both a moral and an economic argument,” Holmes says. “Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa believes that our community should be helping those most in need, whether they’re struggling with trauma, crisis, addiction or anything—give them a helping hand up and give a home to those in need. Every person has dignity and worth. We should be wrapping our arms around these people and helping them.”
The economic argument also applies. “Have you ever heard of Million Dollar Murray?” she asks. It turns out he was a homeless person in Reno, NV. Over a 10-year period, in and out of jail and the hospitals, it seems Murray cost the city of Reno $1 million—to do nothing about him. “It would have been so much cheaper just to give him his own apartment and his own nurse,” Holmes says.
Committee on the Shelterless
“The whole idea is that people aren’t a sum of their problems, they’re human beings that need a lot of support to feel like human beings again.” —Mike Johnson
While the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) is headquartered in Petaluma, its outreach is felt throughout Sonoma County. In addition to providing 350 beds for shelter every night, it also serves more than 1,277,000 meals each year at its Petaluma kitchen and delivers more than 760,000 pounds of food for the hungry.
But COTS does much more than that. It helps transform lives.
Armed with the knowledge that many problems one encounters as an adult have roots in childhood, COTS has set about to break the cycle and has developed award-winning programs that focus on homeless children and their homeless parents.
“As an organization, we protect the kids we see from further abuse or neglect, then we work with their parents to help them identify traumatic experiences they had as kids—experiences that led them to become homeless,” explains Mike Johnson, chief executive officer of COTS. “If we can prevent these same experiences for their children, we stand a great chance of preventing homelessness for the next generation.”
COTS operates a “Children’s Haven” for homeless children at its Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma.It also offers a nine-week course in financial literacy and housing search called “Rent Right.” Another program, called “Work Right,” helps adults find and keep jobs by offering job skills training and mentored internships. A wellness program helps children and adults heal from the trauma of homelessness. Health care is offered to homeless who’ve suffered major injury and/or illness. Clients with mental illness and/or chemical dependency get counseling, as do couples with marital problems. A case manager is assigned to each family or single adult while they’re staying at a COTS shelter—helping them develop an individual action plan.
But the core of the COTS program is its “Kids First” program, a 12-week, intensive parenting program that is required for all parents living in its transitional housing programs. In addition to learning how to foster a child’s self-esteem, it also focuses on grounding and self-awareness for the parents.
“Lots of the time, people don’t realize they’re reacting to something that happened to them as a kid. Let’s say there’s an 11-year-old girl who was molested by her dad, who was a husky guy with a big black beard and wore Aramis cologne. When she gets older, she goes to a job interview and the person interviewing her is a husky guy with a big black beard, wearing Aramis cologne. Her emotions are triggered and it’s fight or flight,” Johnson explains. “Many times, the adults don’t know where the trigger comes from and, as a result, they screw up their lives because they’re in a constant fight-or-flight state of being. They can’t hold jobs. A big part of what we do is help them make the connection. Once they understand their emotions are coming from something that has nothing to do with their current situation, they’re more able to stay focused.
“We help them build skills to keep their life on track. The whole idea is that people aren’t a sum of their problems, they’re human beings that need a lot of support to feel like human beings again,” Johnson says. “You can’t take someone who’s been on the street 20 years, put them in a house, give them a job and expect them to be successful. Everyone has to have a reason to get up in the morning. And homeless people need this more than most.”
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