PD Editorial: Homelessness remains the biggest issue confronting Sonoma County
Author: Editorial Board
Publication: The Press Democrat
As we enter 2019, homelessness remains the crucial issue for Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. In a nation as affluent as America, it is unconscionable that so many people lack permanent places to live.
The local situation has been exacerbated by the loss of so many homes to the 2017 wildfires. California and the West are experiencing the same slow, drawn-out federal response to disasters as has plagued other parts of America.
The loss of that housing has added to what already was a crisis. While the availability and affordability of housing are major concerns, the overriding issue is the increase in chronically homeless individuals — those who have been without a home for at least a year.
Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, whose council district includes the fire-ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood, is ready to act. His desired collaboration between the city and Sonoma County is a good start, because no one government or one approach can solve homelessness.
As Schwedhelm told Staff Writer Will Schmitt, it is critical is that people understand their individual roles. Every government entity, social service provider, business and interested organization or individual must know how to help — and how they fit into the overall plan for reducing homelessness.
Santa Rosa voters defeated a bond measure for affordable housing in November, but a number of new ideas are being floated. They need fleshing out before the hard sell to the public.
County officials are considering a revenue measure to support mental health and homelessness services, which often are related. Voters are wary of higher taxes, having approved several increases since the 1990s. Yet voters also are deeply concerned about homelessness, and investments in mental health care and other services will pay off over time.
It makes sense to examine what services could be financed through a tax increase, what the realistic return on investment would be and whether the public would support it. Local governments across America have tried a variety of approaches, and we can learn from their experiences.
As a community, we must quicken the pace. The county expects to open 14 tiny houses for veterans this month, but that wonderful news has been a long time coming. It also has been nearly three years since the former Palms Inn was converted to housing for veterans and the chronically homeless. Similar opportunities must be found.
A recent federal report indicated that Sonoma County has one of the nation’s largest homeless populations among largely suburban communities. That should come as no surprise. The report said there are 2,657 homeless adults and 715 chronically homeless people here. Fourteen tiny houses are important, but they’re a tiny fraction of what’s needed with so many people sleeping on the streets.
The long-term solutions lie in getting people into permanent housing and then helping them resolve the issues that led them into homelessness, including debt, lack of employment, family problems, addictions or other physical and mental health issues.
Later this month, volunteers will fan out across the county to take a new count. The point-in-time count of homeless individuals, scheduled for Jan. 25, is imprecise, but it is the best measurement available.
More volunteers are needed to help the Sonoma County Community Development Commission make the count as accurate as possible and to help people understand that homeless neighbors are much more than a statistic.
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