Homelessness continues to be a problem in Sonoma County. According to the 2019 Sonoma County Homeless Census, almost 22,000 people are at risk of homelessness on any given night. With high housing costs, loss of employment due to the pandemic and fires of recent years, it doesn’t look to get better any time soon. Our community isn’t exempt from the problem. The city recognized this when in late 2019 they established the Homelessness Roundtable.
Councilmember Susan Adams, who sits on the city council’s ad hoc homelessness committee, described that effort as a public/private partnership to look for opportunities to address homelessness. They set aside funds, through Catholic Charities, to do outreach with a focus on rapid rehousing. However, they recognized “the city cannot resolve it alone.” It is a community-wide issue. So, the Roundtable brought community members together so that working jointly they could take meaningful actions. Participants propose ideas and implement initiatives to address homelessness.
Sisters Paula Brown and Janal Reyes were participants in those early meetings. They decided to do something. They decided their interest would be in feeding people. Until longer term solutions could be found, the homeless would need warm meals for subsistence. Their initial vision was to cook and deliver meals once a week. They created Unsheltered Friends Outreach. In the beginning, it was their family and friends with some private donations for resources. They formed a small group of volunteers through their Discovery Church. Then they started outreach to the community and local businesses to raise awareness of the problem and solicit donations for their efforts.
Unsheltered Friends Outreach isn’t a non-profit. This is their ministry. They are trying to make a difference. During the interview, Brown said “When you see the unsheltered, do you really see them? They’re someone’s son or daughter, a family member. Or do you just look away?” They couldn’t look away, so they acted. Today, through their networking efforts, they have a regular team of about a dozen people. Some help weekly, others once or twice a month. They cook meals, prepare baked goods and put together wellness packets. Those packets are just as important as the meals. They contain items like socks, hand warmers and scarves. They also contain much needed personal care items like toothbrushes and toothpaste. The ladies also distribute blankets, coats, tarps and tents.
They spend 3-4 hours driving “a loop” through Cotati and Rohnert Park delivering the meals and supplies to the homeless. Their 20-mile loop goes to where the homeless are from Cotati Hub to Roberts Lake.
Rohnert Park and Cotati have about 170 unsheltered folks according to the February 2020 Sonoma County Point-in-Time census. It’s likely the actual count may be higher as it’s probably grown since February.
The sisters and other volunteers don’t go down into the creeks and homeless camps; rather, they park nearby and honk their horn. The homeless folks come to them. They typically service three dozen or more each day. They have regulars that they get to know by name and travelers who come and go. They travel in pairs and complete their deliveries before dusk to ensure safety of themselves and their volunteers.
According to Adams they are becoming the face of “private” in the public/private partnership. They’ve gotten others involved in their efforts. Adams recently posted the need for sock donations on her Facebook page. That resulted in almost 500 donated pairs and $960 in cash donations. They’ve enlisted their church for supply drives and snacks. The Faith Community Church provides a clothing closet. And the Heartwood Church, who hosts the Homelessness Roundtable meetings, provides them storage space. Saint Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church conducted a coat drive on their behalf. They also have partnerships with the Cross and Crown Lutheran Church and the Rohnert Park Bible Church.
Businesses and organizations stepped up too. The Chamber of Commerce and both Rotary Clubs of Rohnert Park and Cotati have helped get the word out and made donations. Various restaurants have embraced their efforts. Sonoma Sourdough Sandwiches donates sandwiches weekly. Meals and other donations have come from Sally Tomatoes, Mary’s Pizza, La Hoya Mexican Restaurant, Simmer Rohnert Park, Kyoto Restaurant, Red Bird Bakery, Panera Bread and Oliver’s Market. Their partnership with Neighbors Organized Against Hunger is huge for them. They not only supply food items but allow them freezer and refrigerator space. Dogwood Animal Rescue helps with vet supply and services and they carry dog and cat food on their rounds. They created their own Resource Guide with contact phone numbers such as where to get help, a shower, or other resources like a phone. On a regular basis they coordinate with Catholic Charities to report people who require assistance beyond their abilities.
According to Adams, the sister’s success, demonstrates that many in our community are anxious to help solve the problem of homelessness and are looking for ways to do so. Unsheltered Friends Outreach is one such way. If you’re interested in being part of this effort, you can email them at UF.firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow their efforts by joining their Facebook page at “Unsheltered Friends Outreach (Rohnert Park, California).”