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Sonoma County Releases Homeless Count as Economic Crisis Drags On

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On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 17, Santa Rosa police officers accompanied a private security company in the latest sweep of an encampment within the city limits. All told, an estimated 60 to 80 individuals were removed from a private property owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, a private company, local press and homeless advocates reported.


The action came on the same day as the North Bay’s first major fall rainstorm—a blessing for those worried about more fires, but a curse for the people sleeping on Sonoma County’s streets each night. On Wednesday, the day after the sweep, Sonoma County released the results of its yearly estimate of the number of people living without shelter.


A county press release stated that the estimate, a point-in-time count conducted this February, “shows that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County decreased by 7 percent since 2019.”


But, that conclusion, comes with a few caveats. By their nature, point-in-time counts only offer an estimate of how many people were living in precarious conditions at any given time.


That’s especially significant for a few reasons this year. First, the county dispersed a large homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail weeks before the 2020 count. Then, weeks after the count, the Covid-19 economic crisis began to unfold, leading a record number of Americans to file for unemployment and an as-yet unknown number to lose steady housing.


Meanwhile, the county and local cities continue to move residents of encampments from one spot to the next.


The latest chapter in the county’s decades-long struggle to house homeless people began last winter, when an encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, a bike-pedestrian trail which connects Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, swelled to over 250 residents, drawing attention from neighbors, homeless advocates and the media.


In late January, after months of mounting political pressure, county officials ordered the hundreds of tents and other residences to be cleared from the trail, while investing $12 million dollars in efforts to house the encampments’ residents temporarily or permanently.


While the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires local governments to complete their semi-annual point-in-time counts in the last 10 days of January, Sonoma County received permission to push their 2020 count back to late February by citing a county-declared health emergency due to the Joe Rodota Trail encampment.


The county press release touting the results of the 2020 count notes that 104 trail residents were placed into alternative housing options—including the especially-created Los Guilicos temporary shelter. However, because there were an estimated 258 people living on the trail before it was dispersed, that leaves 154 people who moved into other parts of the county, likely making them harder to count.


Concerns about point-in-time counts as a means of tracking the number of homeless individuals aren’t new or specific to Sonoma County.


A 2017 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) concludes that “regardless of their methodology or execution, point-in-time counts fail to account for the transitory nature of homelessness and thus present a misleading picture of the crisis.”


“Annual data, which better account for the movement of people in and out of homelessness over time, are significantly larger: A 2001 study using administrative data collected from homeless service providers estimated that the annual number of homeless individuals is 2.5 to 10.2 times greater than can be obtained using a point in time count,” the report continues.


At the end of 2020, a year in which millions of Americans struggled to find work and redeem unemployment insurance benefits, that long-term count could prove even more important than usual.


Last week, researchers from The Century Foundation reported that a Dec. 26 deadline written into the CARES Act, the federal law Covid-19 stimulus bill Congress passed in March, could lead 12 million people across the country to lose one or two remaining federal unemployment benefits if Congress does not take action in the next month. An estimated 1.2 million workers in California alone could lose those federal unemployment benefits due to the cutoff, potentially leaving them in still more precarious housing conditions.


So, does the county have a plan to deal with even larger numbers of people living on the streets?


The “no” argument was codified in a report this summer by the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury. The June 2020 report, titled “Sonoma County Has a Homeless Crisis. Is There a Response Plan?” concluded that “The greatest constraint on housing the homeless population is the lack of available accommodations of any type. There are simply not enough beds to fulfill the needs.”


In keeping with these findings, Sonoma County has focused on a Housing First model, which prioritizes placing individuals in long-term housing where they can receive various kinds of help in order to one day support themselves.


The press release touting the results of the 2020 point-in-time count notes the county’s increased investment in various kinds of housing and shelter over the past two years. And, in light of the Covid-19 crisis, Susan Gorin, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, promised that “we will continue to allocate resources to widen our safety net and help our residents stay off the streets.”


However, there is an ongoing problem. As the Grand Jury Report puts it: “Less clearly addressed [by the county] is the question: ‘What do we do about the 2,000 people who are unsheltered tonight?’”


At an Oct. 20 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a response to the Grand Jury. The response agreed that the insufficient number of temporary shelters was a “primary factor” in the consistently high number of homeless people sleeping on the streets and that more geographically dispersed shelters catering to different needs will be required to meet the needs of the homeless population.


However, the supervisors disagreed with one of the Grand Jury’s other contentions: that the county does not yet have a countywide plan to deal with encampments which will inevitably crop up due to the number of people on the streets. The supervisors’ response points to the Interim Encampment Policy, which the Board of Supervisors approved this March in the aftermath of the Joe Rodota Trail encampment.


The interim policy is not countywide. It only applies to the unincorporated county and seven of the county’s smaller cities. Santa Rosa, where 53 percent of the county’s total homeless population resides according to the 2020 count, has its own encampment policy.


After they cleared the Joe Rodota Trail, local officials did largely stop clearing encampments for two months as the nation suffered through the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.


But, in late May, Santa Rosa police officers began again clearing camps, beginning with one underneath Highway 101 near Railroad Square. Since then the city has moved at least six large encampments despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) against the practice, since splitting up an encampment can spread the virus.


Attorneys for a group of homeless residents suing Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa argue that the city is making use of a loophole in a temporary legal injunction between the parties to continue relocating encampment residents.


Attorneys in the case had a brief hearing in front of a judge last week. Another hearing is expected to take place in early December.

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