We’ve all seen them, hiding in our creeks or under overpasses; tent cities of tarp and rope, of shopping carts and dollar store plastic—society’s refuse, cast aside with cold indifference and left to rot. They are the manifestation of our sins, proof that even America, that shining city upon a hill, hides a dark and callous underbelly.
We speak of the homeless, of course—that perennial problem which seem to manifest anew every six months or so. Last winter it was the 250-person encampment along Joe Rodotta Trail between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. That one made national news. CNN reported the camp stretched over a mile long. County officials eventually cleared Joe Rodotta Trail in the interest of public health, but, sure enough, a couple months later the homeless showed up again, this time under the overpass near Railroad Square in Santa Rosa.
But the problem isn’t only limited to Santa Rosa. It’s everywhere. A point-in-time count of homeless performed back in Feb. by Sonoma County, before the shelter in place order went into effect, set the homeless population at 2,745, a 7 percent decline from the year before. That’s good! But homelessness is a symptom of a much, much deeper problem.
A 2019 Sonoma County census found that 17 percent of homeless claimed drugs or alcohol were the root causes of their living situation. The lion’s share with 44 percent? ‘Disabling condition,’ usually mental or behavioral health issues. Such a large number of points to a serious mental health crisis in our county.
And Sonoma County’s Measure O hopes to treat the root cause for the problem by allocating $25 million annually towards transitional housing and psychiatric services. The money will come from a quarter-cent sales tax increase that, if approved by voters with a two-thirds majority in November, will go into effect April 1, 2021 and end March 31, 2031.
A good portion of the cash, about $11 million of it, will go directly towards emergency psychiatric services, like the Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU). Traditionally, the CSU has lacked the manpower and funds to respond to every mental health crisis in the county, leaving the police as the first and often last point of emergency contact. That’s a problem as a 2015 study performed by the Police Executive Research Forum found that, on average, a quarter of people shot by police in the United States suffered from some sort of mental health illness. That same study found that most police officers in America only receive eight hours of mental health training compared to over forty hours of firearm training.
Luckily Sonoma County is different. Our police follow something called the Memphis Model, which calls for forty hours of mental health training. Still, even forty hours pales in comparison to the two to four years of specialized education required to join the CSU.
The homeless are a problem that needs solving, and time and time again we’ve seen that ignoring the issue does not make it go away. Measure O hopes to permanently solve the problem by drastically increasing the county’s mental health and addiction services. The cost is a quarter-cent sales tax increase.