A recent poll in Sonoma County found that homelessness is the number one issue for much of the public, and we certainly have heard a lot about it lately. Addressing it is one of top priorities for the city.
Why are we choosing to do something about homelessness? Frankly, this is not a traditional role for cities. We prefer to spend our dollars on other things that benefit our residents. But the reality is that homelessness is here. Simply ignoring it is not a viable strategy. We’re not doing things that attract homelessness to Rohnert Park. Rather, we are doing the things that have worked in other communities where homelessness is rare and brief.
While some want those experiencing homeless pushed out of town or ‘back to where they came from,’ that is simply not an option. A 2018 federal court ruling requires that cities offer shelter before clearing an encampment.
Additionally, homelessness is not a problem due mostly to people moving to Rohnert Park. The best information we have suggests that 88 percent of those experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County are from this area, and that 64 percent have lived here at least ten years. Forty percent report having mental health challenges. And we have, at best, one third of the shelter beds in Sonoma County needed to house those on the streets or in parks and creeks.
This challenge recently became more visible with the encampment at the Roberts Lake Park and Ride lot. It took a month, but we were able to find shelter for the 40 or so people who were there. Sixty percent of them - 24 individuals - accepted the shelter we were able to find; the others did not. Although the encampment at Roberts Lake Park and Ride has been resolved, the homelessness crisis is not going away.
The solution to homeless is housing, particularly permanent housing. Between January and August, we have helped 43 people become permanently housed. In some cases, this has required temporary help with rent and utilities, while at other times more intensive support - such as mental health counseling - is needed. We have also funded increased outreach, with an emphasis on getting those living outside into permanent housing.
Recently, the state authorized $1.45 billion to create substantially more permanent and short-term housing. These “Project Homekey” funds represent the most funding we’ve ever had to create the housing needed to address homelessness. We are exploring the possibility of purchasing one or two older motels to provide short-term or permanent housing.
We are also evaluating two city properties as possible sites, including a lot adjacent to the westside fire station, and another at the western end of Rohnert Park Expressway. Additionally, Providence St. Joseph is considering their property on Medical Center Drive for 74 studio apartments to provide permanent housing, and 35-40 units of short-term modular housing. The council ruled out using the Goldridge site for housing or sheltering people experiencing homelessness.
The city council will continue to discuss homelessness at upcoming meetings. I encourage interested residents to share your thoughts on these options by attending council meetings or e-mailing your comments to email@example.com.
Additionally, you are welcome to join the Homelessness Roundtable, a group of residents and business owners who meet monthly to develop local solutions. Homelessness is a challenge that the city alone cannot address, and we invite you to find ways that you can help.