May 22, 2018
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New RP homeless count and SR homeless camp eviction

  • The "Where will they go?" event, Wednesday, Feb. 14 in Roseland near Camp 777 on Sebastopol Road, brought up the issue of homelessness and camp residents' fear of lack of aid from Sonoma County. Photo courtesy Grace Cheung-Schulman.

By: Katherne Minkiewicz
February 23, 2018

The City of Rohnert Park has a new official count of the homelessness population after the Sonoma County Community Development Commission released its annual homelessness census and survey this past summer, detailing the increase in homelessness throughout several cities in the county. While RP has seen a decrease in its homeless population and a relatively good rate for sheltering those without a home, other major cities such as Santa Rosa, are still struggling to shelter their population amid a housing crisis fueled by the October firestorm.

According to the 2017 census and survey, RP saw a homelessness population of 76 this past year, with a sheltered population of eight. The total homeless count for that year was 84, a drastic decrease from 2016’s count, which was a much larger figure of 126 with zero percent of that population obtaining shelter.

While 28 percent of those surveyed throughout Sonoma County as a whole, said they made transitional and emergency shelters their home, the majority of respondents said they lived on a street or in an encampment.

“31 percent of survey respondents reported living outdoors, either on the streets, in parks, or in encampments; this is down from 36 percent in 2016. The percentage of survey respondents reporting living in vehicles has steadily increased since 2015, with 17 percent of survey respondents (throughout the county) in 2017 reporting living in a vehicle,” the report stipulates.

Don Schwartz,  assistant city manager for Rohnert Park, spoke on efforts that Rohnert Park is taking to provide more shelter and housing for those who are still shelterless.

At a Nov. 28 city council meeting, the council took action to use $25,000 per year for homelessness prevention and “rapid rehousing services for individuals and families who are homeless or would be homeless,” according to Schwartz. The mandate also included the provision of short-term and or medium-term rental assistance, housing relocation and stabilization services.

“Part of what this means is that we try to get homeless into permanent housing; we do not operate a shelter,” Schwartz said in an email. “Additionally, our public safety officers are on the front lines in working with the homeless, although being homeless and panhandling are not crimes. When it appears there are mental health issues and officers believe the individual may be a danger to themselves or others, they may bring the individual to the county’s mental health facility…. Additionally, our officers may bring people to the Catholic Charities’ shelter in Santa Rosa if they are willing to go and if it’s open.”   

While the City of Santa Rosa has also taken a few steps to try and combat this problem, such as the eventual completion of a one-stop center for homeless camp residents where they can be referred to open shelter beds or other resources, the struggle to house its population is still a significant problem.

The census reports that Santa Rosa has a population of 769 and despite having a sheltered count of 656, the sight of large encampments near the downtown overpass and Roseland are still common, where many people make these camps their home.

To remind Santa Rosa and Sonoma County residents of this ever-present problem, an event was held on Valentine’s Day in front of one of the camps on Sebastopol Road in Roseland where several camp residents offered their “Broken hearts” to the county. This metaphorical offering was a way for camp residents to express their need for more help, compassion and love from the county when it comes to aid and housing.

It was also in response to the future plans to close the camp, displacing all its residents, who worry where they will go next for shelter. The anxiety of finding a place to sleep is even more heightened as many winter shelters, such as the St. Vincent de Paul armory will close at the end of March.

“This press conference was called because there are two camps of about 230 people total in this one area of Roseland and they’ve been given a 30-day notice of closing off (the camps) and there is no place for them to go,” says Adrienne Lauby, who runs the advocacy group “Homeless Action” in Santa Rosa. “We wanted to call the community’s attention to the problem and the desperate need for more community support. Our politicians have turned away from solving this problem so we need to go to the broader community.”

Recently the Santa Rosa City Council voted down a checklist of new (homeless aid) options in late January, which also included the use of land offered by KBBF radio.

Scott Wagner of the Sonoma County grassroots group, “Homeless Action!,” said in a statement regarding the eviction and housing problem, “Where will they go? The county supervisors have said they would not move these people until there is a place for them to be. But 

there’s no practical options on the table.”

A press release of the event pointed towards the story of a SR Homeless Hill resident who faces this “Where will we go” quandary and is an example of the city’s quandary in providing a stable solution to helping the shelter less find safe and permanent housing.

“Last August, Samantha Jenkins left the security of her camp on Homeless Hill in SR for the promise of a warm bed and the possibility of an apartment of her own. Like others, she was moved out by the City of Santa Rosa’s Homeless Pilot Program. Six months later, her only bed is in a tent next to 120-130 other displaced people,” the press release said.

And now, the last chance camps are to be evicted, with this cycle of uncertainty in housing to be repeated.

SR City Council member Julie Combs attended last Wednesday’s event and said of the difficult situation, “We can all agree that everyone deserves a safe, sanitary place to sleep at night. The shelter is full. Let’s support safe parking/safe havens and give a helping hand until Housing First can be fully funded.”

While the primary cause of homeless in the first place can vary, the survey did point to one major factor that leads to homelessness in Sonoma County. 

“In 2017, 24 percent of survey respondents reported job loss as the primary cause of their homelessness,” the survey states.

One female camp resident who wished to remain unnamed, made an emotional statement at the event regarding her struggles of being homeless in Sonoma County and her comments seemed to point towards why the problem of homelessness and its solutions can sometimes be overlooked — which is the occurrence of negative stigmas.

 “I’ve seen some of the most horrible things since I’ve been on the street and some of the most horrible preconceptions that everybody tends to have. We all get a little bit scared when we see someone who’s dirty… but it hurts that people are still looking away. It just breaks my heart,” she said. “It’s like the county wants to hide their shame. Nobody gives a f*** about them. They treat them like garbage.”