Homelessness is an all-consuming crisis for those experiencing it and a societal emergency for communities battling it. In order to effectively respond, support is required from a variety of sources. While Sonoma County continues to make significant progress, we only need to look as far as those currently living along the Joe Rodota Trail to know that more is needed. The Community Development Commission (CDC) and the Department of Health Services (DHS) have aggressively worked to bring their combined expertise and research to recommend a number of enhancements to our system of care – all in a manner that ensures services and housing are responsive, accessible and based on the demonstrated need that focus on people first. They embrace the Housing First model to align resources in a way that creates the necessary permanent supportive housing and system-wide modifications Sonoma County currently lacks. An indoor-outdoor shelter is one of these system enhancements.
Recent Efforts and Outcomes
Since 2011, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the County has consistently declined from 4,500 to less than 3,000, a 35% sustained reduction overall. During the past three years alone – which included three natural disasters – the CDC has successfully housed more than 3,000 individuals experiencing homelessness countywide, with 95% of those remaining stably housed after one year. This figure has been reported to and verified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 2018, the Continuum of Care achieved a major milestone when it began implementing a Coordinated Entry System to better serve and target the most vulnerable members of our community. As to the system’s ability to serve those living on the Joe Rodota Trail, since the end of October 2019 – a timeframe that included the Kincade fire – 70 individuals have been brought into the system of care through shelter and housing options being offered during continuous outreach by what is now six separate but coordinated teams. These efforts continue today.
It is important to recognize that the system’s current ability to deploy any interventions in the short-term is a result of ongoing efforts that have been underway within the County and in coordination with its partners over the past several years. Notable efforts include the launch of the County of Sonoma’s ACCESS Initiative, Coordinated Entry, the redesign of the Sonoma County Housing Authority’s waitlist, and the creation of Home Sonoma County as the governing body for the Continuum of Care. At the same time as the system has been dramatically remade, resources into housing and facilities have been targeted specifically to address moving people through the system, as opposed to warehousing and stalling them within it. Such efforts have included partnering with the development and nonprofit community to preserve units at the Palms Inn; financing the creation of new units at the Gold Coin; partnering with the City of Santa Rosa on capital improvements for Sam Jones Hall; and funding smaller projects such as Sanctuary Villas that serve youth or Windsor Veterans Village that support specific homeless subpopulations. It is the totality of these efforts that make additional rapid deployment of new interventions possible.
A Homeless Emergency
All of the work outlined in the previous section feels inconsequential when faced with the current encampment that has grown along the Joe Rodota Trail. To respond more effectively and better serve the trail occupants, and the nearly 3,000 members of our community that remain without homes,
Sonoma County and its partners recognize that the system of care must enhance linkages to housing by providing options and equity. Solutions must be low-barrier, flexible, and promote safety, dignity, autonomy, and respect. People experiencing homelessness must be able to stay with their partners and pets. Those exiting from interim measures should only be exiting into permanent housing.
On December 17, 2019 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution declaring a Homeless Emergency on the Joe Rodota Trail (JRT) due to the threat to health and safety of those experiencing homelessness and to the natural environment, public health and well-being of the community. On December 23, the Board of Supervisors/Board of Commissioners took action to approve a multi-part approach to address the homeless emergency on the Joe Rodota trail, including purchase of homes for shared living, entering into master leases, the provision of behavioral, health, medical and social services, and the establishment of indoor-outdoor shelters.
An Indoor-Outdoor Shelter is an interim measure that will position the County to further support moving individuals from homelessness into affordable and permanent supportive housing currently under construction and in the pipeline. It should be noted that this indoor-outdoor shelter, and any of the other interim measures being taken to address the current crisis will do little to address overall homelessness within the County without overarching, long-term system investments and improvements.
What are Indoor-Outdoor Shelters?
Indoor-outdoor shelters are modernized shelter sites that are extensions of the existing shelter system and can accommodate the needs of those who are unable to stay in congregate living quarters. An indoor-outdoor shelter site site may include a combination of on-site structures, RV hook-ups, and safe parking. An indoor-outdoor shelter must meet people where they are and address accommodation needs. The indoor-outdoor shelter model is based on proven, solution-oriented strategies that emphasize permanent housing as an outcome, rather than efforts that inadvertently warehouse people without solving underlying issues. Guiding principles include – for those who want to participate in the system of care – providing interventions that are safe and secure and provide access to running water, sanitary facilities, electricity, and connection to services.