Homelessness is a highly complex issue and a challenge facing Rohnert Park. It is also one of the highest priorities for our residents based on our Community Survey.
I’d like to provide some background on this complicated issue and let you know what we are doing about it.
There are many factors that contribute to homelessness. These include high housing costs. A study commissioned by Zillow found that homelessness increases when the average amount of rent exceeds 22 percent of income. Homelessness increases rapidly when rent exceeds 32 percent of income. In Rohnert Park, average rent is about 38 percent of income.
Mental illness is another major factor. Of individuals experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County, 35 percent report having psychological or emotional challenges and 25 percent report having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Other important factors include drug and alcohol addiction and the prevalence of low wage jobs.
We are often asked about the size of the homeless population. Each year a count is completed on one night in January, providing a snapshot of the situation. County-wide, we’ve seen a reduction from about 4,500 individuals to 2,951 since 2011 in the annual count, a decline of 35 percent. In Rohnert Park, our count has increased from 44 in 2013 to 129 this year. The number of individuals experiencing homelessness each year is higher.
It appears that 87 percent of those experiencing homelessness here are from Sonoma County. Seventy percent report living here for at least 10 years before becoming homeless. The data suggests that very few of the homeless in Sonoma County are moving here while homeless.
We believe that those experiencing homelessness are becoming more visible. They commonly reside along creeks. Because of increasingly stringent state regulations we have increased patrols of our creeks and efforts to keep them clean. This is likely leading some individuals to move to other areas. Additionally, development elsewhere in the city and SMART train cleaning encampments from railroad right of way are likely causing individuals to move as well.
The population of people experiencing homelessness is abroad spectrum. It helps to group them by their needs. One can think about three types of groups experiencing homelessness. One type are those who mostly lack the income to obtain or keep housing. A second type are individuals with significant mental health or other challenges that prevent them from living safely on their own. These are the most difficult to serve as they require not only housing but also services such as permanent mental health support. The third type are not willing to accept housing even if it is offered to them. This last group represents a very small percentage of those experiencing homelessness in Rohnert Park.
Residents also ask why we can’t just require those experiencing homelessness to leave, or why they are allowed to reside along our creeks or in other areas. The courts have recently ruled that being homeless is not illegal. We cannot require individuals to leave just because they are homeless. We can, however, take action when individuals interfere with use of public facilities, when there is aggressive or criminal activity, or when there are health and safety risks.
The city is taking numerous actions to address homelessness, including adding housing, referring individuals experiencing homelessness to shelter and services and cleaning up encampments that create health risks or safety problems.
Even with our efforts, homelessness is a challenge that is beyond our ability to address alone. Thus, we have established a Community Roundtable on Homelessness. The purpose of the Roundtable is to invite those interested in helping to solve the challenges to come together to take action. To find out more about the Roundtable, what the city is doing, how you can help, resources for those that need help and frequently asked questions visit www.rpcity.org/homelessness.