Sonoma County and Santa Rosa residents, authors of the 2017 Homeless Talk report and members of the Coalition for Citywide Conversations on Homelessness came together at the Glaser Center in Sonoma County Nov. 12 for the “What did they say - 500 People talk about homelessness” event, where a panel of speakers discussed the findings of the report and the effect the recent fires have had on the pre-fire homeless population. Positive effects include increased aid and resources after an outpouring of support from volunteers and donators, and negative effects include increased negative stigma and stereotype associated with the pre-fire homeless population, which in turn, affects how this particular population acquires aid.
The report, which took around a year to make, was based off a total of 1,300 comments recorded in concentrated focus group discussions of approximately 500 Santa Rosa residents, where each group talked over a different topic pertaining to homelessness, according to a press release by Adrienne Lauby, one of the authors of the report.
After the data and comments were sifted through and recorded, volunteers and writers of the report found five different recurring topics regarding homelessness. These included; funds for housing, innovative and traditional housing, the situation, engaged and integrated community and stigma and realities. These topics were then related back to 21 different themes, all of which played a part in influencing each of these five topics. For example the topic of “Stigma and realities,” had themes of “biases, stigma, assumptions,” which lead to “visibility of homelessness” (or lack thereof), “safety,” “educating homeless people and the public,” and “what individuals could do.”
All of these themes influence one another and lead to the main topic — in this case, “Stigma and realities.” The report, authored by Cecelia Querubin, Adrienne Lauby, Pat Kuta and Gregory Fearon, explained how the topics and report worked, “We tell a story by using linked loops. Above are five interlinking loops, each made up of four to six themes. The idea is that each individual loop tells a version of a larger story of homelessness in Santa Rosa. By linking the story loops together, the diagram shows that every theme interacts with the others so we can visually see the concerns of the community.”
However, each of these individual stories didn’t only influence the topics of discussion, but also influenced each panelists’ discussion at last Sunday’s event. Many of the panelists focused on discussing each of these topics in light of the recent deadly wildfires and how the disaster affects those who are homeless.
One panelist, Charlene Love, a homeless women and Santa Rosa Junior College student, discussed the “Stigma and realities” during the afternoon event and shared her story of homelessness and the negative stereotypes that come along with it.
“I am going to start by maybe asking a slightly personal question,” Love said addressing the audience, asking one member, Jerry, what his shoe size was. The answer was 10 and a half. While it may seem odd to start out a presentation by asking audience members what shoe size they wore, this question would serve as an important metaphor for how Love and others who are homeless have been treated pre and post fire.
“One size does not fit all in regards to our homeless population. There are many in their cars, there are many who are couch surfing, there are many like myself who are disabled, there are students, seniors and veterans. And unfortunately society sees us as a one size fits all... And I think that is one of the primary reasons why we haven’t come up with a solution for all of those who are homeless,” Love said.
When Love came to Santa Rosa in 2014 and went to seek refuge in a local homeless shelter, upon entering the shelter she was immediately asked, “What is your drug of choice,” and Love responded, “cupcakes.”
When arriving at that shelter, the woman who asked that question had viewed Love as a “one size fits all,” viewing her with a negative lens — assuming that Love was a drug addict, didn’t have a job or an education. But Love isn’t this “one size” fits all stereotype that we often place upon those who are homeless and according to her, this stereotype carries on with the pre-fire homeless population, affecting their chances in finding shelter or a housing program.
Love, who has been living in an apartment building with a friend, has been trying to find housing through a senior housing program but has received a cold shoulder from the property manager who wouldn’t accept her application voucher for housing for various reasons, such as fear of drug activity or having a low fico score. When the fire hit Love had to evacuate her friend’s apartment and is now staying with another friend, but doesn’t know where she will be able to go next.
“Unlike the newly homeless who have lost their homes and God love them and may all be with them, but FEMA wasn’t there for me, the Red Cross wasn’t there for me. No one came charging down from the hill like John Wayne and the ninth cavalry was rescuing me. We were just worthless trash. This is the stigma that the working class retirees, your students, your seniors are in in Sonoma County,” Love said. “Sonoma wasn’t strong for me, Sonoma turned its back on me.”
The other event panelist, Adrienne Lauby, talked about the “Engaged and integrated community” topic loop (with the key theme of police and bureaucracy playing a part on the root causes of homelessness) and wrapped up the crux of this problem of stigma and how it affects the pre-fire homeless.
According to her, homelessness was not deeply cared about until after the fires, “until there was a real apparent disaster,” she said. Lauby also spoke of the 6th Street underpass in Santa Rosa, which housed a fair amount of homeless encampments before the fire and has seen an increase in encampments.
“Since the fire, the encampment has around 70-75 people living under the freeway,” Lauby said, who also mentioned that now these people will have to find somewhere else to go since police agencies are planning to clear out the camps, perpetuating this problem area of homelessness.
A few days after the homeless talk panel event, the Santa Rosa Police Department posted a notice stating that those residing under the 5th, 6th and 9th Street underpass must vacate the area and all personal property and debris will be removed.
Despite these negative effects, both Pat Kuta (one of the report authors) and panelist Scott Johnson also talked about the fact that even though these disparities are still present, the out pouring of resources from non-profits and agencies can be beneficial to the homeless population.
“Now, because of the fires, we have a unique opportunity for the prefire homeless community to benefit from the resources and public goodwill marshalled in response to the fires,” Kuta said.
According to Johnson, people are starting to find more cost efficient ways to build low-income housing. A recent California bill signed into law will provide funding for low-income housing building will also be helpful, for both the prefire and postfire population Johnson says.
“An affordable housing bill for California was signed into law last month and will be a permanent source of funding. It will be a 4 billion dollar obligation fund that will result in new levels of funding for housing,” Johnson explained.
While this is one step towards providing more resources for those in need, Johnson said more work needs to be done to help ensure the continuing stream of aid for fire victims and those who are homeless.
“We need to be smart, diligent, tenacious and collaborative to bring forward projects that contain more public fund commitments,” Johnson said.
The report and event panelists mainly touched on the status of homeless in Sonoma County — which is an estimated population of around 3,000, but what about the status of homelessness in Rohnert Park?
One RP resident of 11 years, Anne Trujillo, says she believes homelessness is a problem in RP. “Yes, I think homelessness is an issue. I see people living here under bridges and in creeks. There needs to be more alternate housing for folks,” Trujillo said.
The Voice reached out to the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety to inquire about the status of homelessness in RP and if there have been any complaints received about homeless encampments, however, they did not respond in time for publication.
When asked what shelters and resources are available to those who are homeless in RP, Mike Thompson, the CEO of the Petaluma Committee on the Shelterless, said he urges those in RP or anyone who needs shelter to come to the shelter in Petaluma, which has around 100 bed available for single adults and 35 beds for families.
“There are services available both to the north and the south of Rohnert Park, but we would probably be the closest. For anyone who is homeless in RP, if they can find their way to Petaluma and to the Mary Isaak Center we are there to help. Especially in the wintertime, we have what we call our severe weather beds open, which means our capacity has expanded,” Johnson said.
For more information on the Mary Isaak Center or COTS, call (707) 765-6530 and to view the full report on the “Homeless Talk,” visit: voicesonhomelessness.blogspot.com.