Finding effective ways to do something about homelessness in Sonoma County, and especially within Santa Rosa, has been an issue for decades, as dozens of separate agencies and charitable organizations strived to address this concern. 

Tom Schwedhelm became mayor of Santa Rosa in December of 2018. He provided Alliance members with an update on a strategic new design for a system of care at the March 6, General Membership Meeting.

“During a goal setting meeting two weeks ago city council members were asked to pick the two most important things facing our region. Through a sealed vote they said ‘housing and homelessness’ were their critical concerns. This is a countywide issue that needs a countywide response, and one that involves a partnership among service providers,” Schwedhelm said. “This issue affects everyone in this room.”

A resident of Santa Rosa since 1980, Schwedhelm was elected to the Santa Rosa City Council in 2014 and 2018 after spending 31 years in the local police department – which led to his selection as the city’s 10th chief of police. He also chaired the Violence Prevention Task Force.

He said from 1983 to 2014 not a public dime was spent to address this problem. Many homeless individuals were not as visible as they are today.  That has all changes, evidenced by the tents under the 6th Street bridge and Homeless Hill off Farmer’s Lane in Bennett Valley.

According to Schwedhelm, the Sonoma County census of homeless individuals in 2009 totaled 3,247, rising to 4,539 in 2011 and 4,280 in 2013 (due in part to the Great Recession’s impact on jobs). By 2015 the number had fallen to 3,107 and continued this downward trend in 2016 (2,906) and 2017 (2,835). However, in 2018 the census showed a 6% increase to 2,996 (which could be blamed partially on the wildfires).  This followed a 34% reduction from 2011 to 2018.

Of this countywide total, homeless individuals in Santa Rosa accounted for more than half of the county’s homeless population total in 2018 (1563), however, this number only increased by 119 individuals from the prior year – most likely due to the annexation of Roseland.

An analysis of who are experiencing homelessness showed that 84% lived in Sonoma County before becoming homeless and 65% lived in the county for 10 years or more.  The top five causes include job loss (22%); alcohol or drug use (17%); being asked to leave homes (15%); eviction (12%), and due to divorce, separation or breakup (11%).

He said things have changed dramatically since the 1980’s.  Placing the homeless in permanent housing first, rather than after they go through assessment and rehabilitation, has been the key. Ease of entry into the coordinated system has also made a big difference.  There are street outreach programs, housing-focused shelter assistance, and the City of Santa Rosa has made a $2.9 million contribution to address this social issue.  

In addition, a mechanism to rate the service each homeless person receives has been established. Called a Vulnerability Index Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (called VI-SPDAT). This is a survey administered both to individuals and families to determine risk and prioritization when providing assistance to homeless and those at-risk of homelessness.

Before the Housing First care system was established, the typical housing readiness procedure involved moving a person into a shelter, receiving mental, behavioral and mental treatment, followed by transitional housing, obtaining income and establishing landlord relationships — and then placement in permanent housing. 

“Without a Coordinated Entry System (CES), those in need had to run through a maze before finding a permanent home. With CES, connecting to housing and necessary support comes at the front end, followed by navigation and assessments,” Schwedhelm said.

He said Housing First is a fresh approach to quickly and successfully connecting individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry – such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. 

In 2018 and 2019, the City of Santa Rosa is contributing $2.9 million that supports the Homeless Outreach Services Team, the Clean Start Shower Trailer, the operation of the Samuel Jones Hall Shelter, the Homeless Services Center and the Housing First Fund (HFF). HFF has three components that comprise is mission: Rapid Rehousing; a Risk Mitigation Fund, and a Landlord Incentive program. 

The Palms Inn located at 3345 Santa Rosa Avenue, is one example of permanent housing.  Its 104 rooms house 60 veterans and 44 chronically homeless individuals who benefit from access to on-site supportive services. 

Home Sonoma County, the county’s homeless system of care (also known as HomeBase), was redesigned beginning in 2017. The County of Sonoma and the City of Santa Rosa established an ad hoc committee to restructure the continuum of care. In September of 2017 HomeBase presented a report to the board of supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council describing the changes made to the overall care system.

This remodeled system was redesigned into three components: The primary decision-making group includes the Santa Rosa City Council, Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, the Continuum of Care board, the CD Committee, various city councils, private foundations and the board of supervisors.  

Under the new plan, emphasis is placed on establishing coordinated entry through a steering committee, leading to a referral stage supported by a data committee along as well as an access and assessment group.

The second component includes four lead agencies – the Community Development Commission, the Santa Rosa city staff, Petaluma City staff and the provider staff.

The third component includes 15 task groups: HOST Street Outreach, Homeless Youth Task Force, Housing Development Sonoma Committee, Point in Time Count, Rent Sonoma County, Human Trafficking Task Force, Homeless Action, Upstream, a Veterans committee, HMIS Policy Committee, DV Death Review, a Program Standards Committee, Evaluation Review and Rank group, Benefits SOAR Committee, and a cocktail Parties/Events group.

The outcome of this redesign process resulted in what Schwedhelm called “an ideal system of care symbiosis,” with the primary decision-making group providing leadership, vision and direction to task groups. The decision makers assign duties and responsibilities to the lead agency. The lead agency, in turn, provides support, data and staffing for various task groups. 

This new governing body is headed by Home Sonoma County, with the Community Development Commission as the lead agency. The Leadership Council, comprised for four Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) members and elected officials, oversees the TAC committee and its 25 community experts. TAC Task Groups include those engaged in coordinated entry and Housing First placements; performance measurement and evaluation; data initiatives; housing production and repaid re-housing; system funding and emergent issues. 

The Homeless Outreach Partnership and Engagement (HOPE) team was formed to establish a “by names list” that includes those experiencing homelessness who are the most vulnerable and having the greatest impact on the Health Care System, along with the Criminal Justice System. Names are populated by service providers and public safety officers. 

This team includes representatives from 15 public and private groups:  Sonoma County Parks; Santa Rosa Police; the DA’s Office, public defender’s office; Sonoma County Sheriff’s office; American Medical Response; Kaiser Permanente; City of Santa Rosa; Catholic Charities; the Drug Abuse Alternative Center; the Santa Rosa Fire Department; Sonoma County Probation; Sonoma County Behavioral Health; Social Advocates for Youth (SAY); and St. Joseph Health. 

“The question most people ask is, is this system working? Here’s one example using a fictitious name for a real homeless person I will call Ross,” Schwedhelm added. “Ross required over 80 ambulance rides to an emergency room in 2017, and more than 60 rides in 2018. The HOPE Team worked to get Ross into the Palms Inn. He was housed at the Palms in January 2019. Since October 2018, he has only visited an emergency room six times.”

In another example of the housing challenges in Sonoma County, Schwedhelm said Catholic Charities (Santa Rosa’s contract service agency) housed some 651 homeless individuals during 2018 alone.

“People often ask what they can do to ease the homeless housing crisis. There are at least five ways you can help: By donating to organizations using evidence-based practices; by not ignoring people experiencing homelessness – acknowledge that they exist; by showing up at City Council and Board of Supervisors meetings to encourage their support of evidence-based practices; by educating those in your ‘circle of influence,’ and by realizing that homelessness is a community-wide issue requiring a community-wide response. It’s not someone else’s problem, it’s ours.”