But even as the county’s overall homeless population shrank 2 percent from last year, to 2,835, some of the county’s more rural areas reported marked increases in homeless residents, according to a final report stemming from the annual countywide homeless census in January.
Surveys conducted after the January census with 687 people showed that 64 percent of respondents reported having one or more health conditions, including drug or alcohol abuse, psychiatric conditions, physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic health problems.
Among the total survey respondents, 18 percent identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Among youth respondents in particular, 35 percent identified as LGBTQ.
Margaret Van Vliet, the executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, said the county’s homeless situation fared relatively well compared to some of the West Coast’s larger urban areas.
“The feeders into the homeless system are as bad as they’ve been,” Van Vliet said. “If we believe that maybe some of the efforts in Santa Rosa, as an example, have begun to pay off and we’re helping more people to get back into housing, then that’s great. Let’s learn from that and see how we can deploy more resources throughout the county.”
January’s point-in time count found most of the homeless population — about 58 percent — lived in the Santa Rosa area, where the total number of homeless people dropped by 13 percent year over year.
Jennielynn Holmes, the director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, said the city had “really put a lot of time and effort” into addressing homelessness in recent years, including expansion of the county’s homeless outreach program.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors supported conversion of the Palms Inn, a former motel outside Santa Rosa city limits, into 104 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people and homeless veterans.
“A lot of times what you hear is, ‘Oh, if you have services, you’re going to attract people to this part of the community,’ but this data, to me, disproves that,” Holmes said. “If you actually invest in homeless services, your numbers actually go down rather than go up.”
The county’s southern half, encompassing the cities of Petaluma, Cotati and Rohnert Park, saw a 20 percent decline in its homeless population this year, according to the report.
In the west county, including Sebastopol and the lower Russian River area, the homeless population was up nearly 28 percent, while the north county’s population was up 49 percent, according to the report. In the Sonoma Valley, the number of homeless people identified this year was more than double the number found in last year’s point-in-time count.
Methodology and Mother Nature may have factored into those numbers.
The 2017 count benefited from better weather and a crop of “very experienced guides” who were able to access some encampments that others may not have been able to even find, said Michael Gause, Continuum of Care coordinator for the Community Development Commission.
And in the Sonoma Valley, census takers asked to begin their count a little later this year in order to maximize their visibility, according to Gause.
Still, county officials acknowledge the homeless population has grown more noticeable in recent years, which they say continues to be driven by factors such as the displacement of encampments along railroad tracks in advance of the start of SMART’s passenger rail service. This year’s historically wet winter may have also increased the visibility of homeless people along the lower Russian River, Gause said.
“I know I heard anecdotally, on the ground in west county, just because of all the flooding, they felt like people are out more — that they actually saw more people than they had in the past because the river was so high,” he said.
Still, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents west county, said the numbers in this year’s report reflect what many in her district have been experiencing in their day-to-day lives.
“In some ways, it’s validating what they’ve been telling us,” Hopkins said of the census data. “I think it really does represent a true increase in the number of homeless residents in the Russian River area.”
Overall, this year’s report showed a 14.4 percent drop in the number of chronically homeless people, now a little more than half the size of the 2013 tally. The 2017 count identified 211 homeless veterans, down from 274 in 2016 and 400 in 2013 — a decline likely aided by the Palms Inn, which includes 60 units for veterans.
An overwhelming majority of survey respondents — 79 percent — said they lived in Sonoma County before they became homeless.
“To the extent people may get on a bus and go from one community to another, it’s mostly because they think that maybe they have a shot at a job or maybe they have a brother that might take them in,” Van Vliet said. “People don’t shop around for the place that’s the most humane.”
Just under three-quarters of the survey respondents said they would want to move into safe, affordable and permanent housing if it was available.
That figure could support efforts to expand the county’s housing supply as officials strive to prioritize putting roofs over the heads of the unsheltered population.
“The housing-first model is not just about getting people into housing before you address their other needs, it’s also about having the housing to put them in,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane. “That’s the challenge that we face right now.”