As cold temperatures descend on the North Bay, advocates are pushing for more measures to protect people living on the street.
In a statement released on Friday, Nov. 18, the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission called on the county to provide “immediate relief” during freezing conditions by opening public buildings, including the Veterans Memorial Hall and Sonoma County Fairgrounds buildings, to offer additional emergency shelter for unhoused people.
In the days leading up to the announcement, temperatures outside had dipped into the low 30s three days in a row, leaving those without access to shelter—estimated around 2,000 across the county—at risk of hypothermia, frostbite and other health effects.
In recent years, local agencies and their nonprofit partners have offered some additional space for people to stay out of the cold during the winter, but never nearly enough to fit all of those in need. Despite the fact that Santa Rosa declared a state of emergency around homelessness six years ago, the Human Rights Commission argues local governments don’t treat this annual emergency the same as others.
“It is well established that in times of other emergencies, municipal buildings have been designated in a matter of hours to house and care for large numbers of people such as wildfire victims complete with food, water, and adequate facilities for the newly homeless,” the Nov. 18 statement reads in part.
The commission’s plea came three days after the Santa Rosa City Council approved a new plan to reduce homelessness to “functional zero” within five years. The goal, which the city’s website acknowledges is “ambitious,” is defined as reaching a status where “homelessness is rare and brief and the availability of services and resources match or exceed the demand within the community.” Crossing the “functional zero” finish line would require the city to offer enough short-, mid- and long-term resources to serve those in need.
Currently, Santa Rosa, as with numerous others around the state, is far from that goal, despite budgeting $5 million on services this year.
Between February 2020 and February 2022, Santa Rosa’s homeless population increased by 13.5%, from 1,461 to 1,658, according to two point in time counts from those months.
Core to the problem is that local governments simply don’t offer enough temporary, let alone permanent, housing options to meet the need. Santa Rosa’s plan states that, currently, roughly 1,409 people would accept permanent housing, however the city’s system only has the capacity to serve 582 people a year, leaving a “permanent housing gap” of 827 units.
Meanwhile, people continue to cycle through the city’s emergency shelter system. The average length of stay is 79 days, with only 16% of people being successfully placed into permanent housing.
The plan outlines three “strategy areas” in order to achieve functional zero. Bullet points call on the city and its partners to expand mobile outreach services, create more housing options, and improve data collection and collaboration with other local agencies.
One thing seems sure: Hundreds of people will remain homeless as temperatures dip this winter, whether or not local agencies offer additional temporary shelter options.
Santa Rosa’s new plan is available for review at www.srcity.org/3735/Homelessness-Solutions-Strategic-Plan.