For the past few years, Sonoma County’s public actions, politics and priorities have been defined by wildfires. That’s no longer the case as the year 2020 looks to be defined by homelessness. Local governments are spending millions on the intractable problem, lawsuits have been filed, a supervisorial recall election has been threatened and task forces are meeting all over the county. National TV, radio and other media outlets are descending on the county again, this time not to cover more wildfires, but to report on the county’s biggest homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail.
Last week, during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020 budget presentation he placed homelessness as his top priority and declared homelessness “the issue that will define our times.” He pledged $1.4 billion to address the need for emergency shelters, rent subsidies, inter-agency coordination and housing construction.
Recent county supervisors’ work to locate housing properties and a location for a temporary indoor-outdoor homeless hub and shelter have taken place in rapid-fire, unvetted and half-scripted actions.
Housing officials report there are 2,800 unsheltered people in the county with just 750 emergency beds or housing units to serve them. Besides the lack of housing, several task force members said another big contributing factor to the local homelessness picture is the fear, anger and dehumanizing responses from many in the general public.
In December, the board of supervisors approved $11.67 million in December to buy housing, contract for a temporary indoor-outdoor shelter and fund various programs led by other local governments and nonprofits.
During their Jan. 14 meeting, supervisors voted unanimously on a consent calendar that included the purchase of two properties — 866 Sonoma Ave. in Santa Rosa (asking price $1.15 million) and 8190, 8192 and 8194 on Arthur Street in Cotati (asking price $995,000) — as shared living houses for some people living on the Joe Rodota Trail.
Notably, virtually every citizen comment during the public comment session was against this proposal, with concerns ranging from the lack of accountability for both the county spending and the screening of potential residents, drug abuse, safety and security non-Sonoma County residents coming in to receive services and general sense of unfairness that other groups would be more deserving of such largesse.
The board of supervisors also voted Tuesday to use the county-owned Los Guilicos site near the Oakmont retirement community as a temporary outdoor shelter for people living on the Joe Rodota Trail. District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin had the dissenting vote. The shelter would only be open temporarily, until around April 30. The other option for the shelter site was off of Mendocino Avenue adjacent to a daycare and pre-school.
Both options were met with criticism and worry in regard to the security of surrounding residents and businesses.
A community meeting will be held on Thursday, Jan. 16, with Oakmont community members and the folks who will operate the shelter site to discuss possible security measures.
County staff said they looked at around 100 different site options and evaluated the possibility of locations with an 11-point criteria evaluation.
Meanwhile the pending dispersal and relocation of the homeless people at the Joe Rodota Trail set to begin before the end of this month will continue to grab headlines and stir emotions and public protests.
County homelessness workers predict 40-60 “hardcore” homeless people will resist any relocation, but a big majority will welcome safer and cleaner quarters like the temporary indoor-outdoor shelters.
Michael Gause of the county’s homelessness program endorsed the housing first model, adding, “If we could serve this population with housing, we’d save lots of resources,” including extra law enforcement, fire calls, agency coordination and litigation expenses.