Taking It to the Streets

A growing movement in the North Bay pushes for long-term solutions to a chronic homeless problem

It’s been a busy day for 58-year-old Charlene Love. She spent most of it in classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she studies horticulture. Later, she went to a meeting of housing advocates, and she ended the day scanning the internet looking for a job and a place to live. Love recently found housing, but it’s not permanent.

“My goal is to not get caught up in the system of homelessness,” says Love, who is weary of hopping from one temporary shelter bed to another. She’s not alone.

Love’s story is all too familiar in the North Bay, even as the city of Santa Rosa is ranked in the top
10 in California for homeless services. It is, surprisingly, third in the state when it comes to the availability of affordable housing. And yet Sonoma County saw a
32 percent spike in homelessness between 2009 and 2013, according to data from the Task Force for the Homeless.

That rate is higher than the state and national averages, and data from the Sonoma County Department of Health indicates that an average of 30 homeless people die on the streets of Sonoma County every year. The good news is that the county has seen the advent of a vigorous homeless-advocacy movement. Love is a part of that movement, and serves on the county’s Task Force for the Homeless and is a member of Homeless Action, a group of activists, church members and, critically, the homeless themselves.

The push in activism comes as the county studies efforts to address homelessness in more innovative ways. There are models around the country worth considering. Utah, for example, has reduced its homeless population by 77 percent utilizing the “housing first” approach. It’s a pretty simple idea: Give people a place to live, because it’s cheaper than jail or the emergency room.

THINK SMALL

Some cities have developed sanctioned encampments run by homeless people. The camps bring people into community, instead of isolating them from it. Santa Rosa is looking into it, but not very closely. The key question for Sonoma County leaders is to find which solutions are most viable for the region. There are plenty of ideas: sanctioned encampments, converting the old Sutter Hospital building into single-room occupancies, rent protections, rescinding all city ordinances that prohibit sleeping in cars and providing safe parking for those with cars, to name a few.

One solution that seems particularly workable for Sonoma County is providing tiny homes for the homeless. (There are three tiny-house communities run by and for homeless people in at least three states; they offer a mix of transitional and permanent housing.) These 200- to 500-square-foot houses are affordable ($15,000–$30,000) and energy efficient, and they align well with Sonoma County’s long-term plan for affordable housing, Program 41, which proposes using “non-traditional structures for housing.”

The county already has a vibrant tiny-house scene, and is considered a hub of production thanks to Tumbleweed Tiny Houses and the educational advocacy of Jay Shafer, Tiny Houses author and founder of Four Lights Houses. Shafer leads workshops on tiny-house design across the country and hopes to create a development in Sebastopol.

He is reticent on the point that tiny houses are a solution to homelessness, but he’s emphatic about the general social boon the tiny-house movement can offer, especially on affordability. And Shafer is optimistic that changes in housing code will remove barriers to tiny-house development in the county. Small houses are often put on wheels making them technically recreational vehicles. Grouped together, they could be zoned as RV parks to get around regulations about permanent structures.

Housing advocate Jack Tibbets has a proposal with Sonoma County to create an “Eco-Community,” a five-unit mini neighborhood designed with a central garden space. Residents would be required to put 65 percent of their rent into a savings account. The project’s estimated cost is $287,000, far cheaper than the cost of traditional affordable housing. Tibbets has submitted a proposal to the county Board of Supervisors that seeks to identify properties for a pilot project. The board is considering the proposal but has not acted on it.

Tibbets believes small houses will give residents the dignity that shelters strip away. “I have found many homeless people to be incredibly self-sufficient and independent,” he says, “and I think we should be creating spaces for their self-determination to thrive.”

Jay Beckwith, CEO of Sonoma Workforce Homes, has a plan to create a community for low-wage workers in Healdsburg. Sounds good on paper: tiny-house ownership at zero percent interest for workers who make at least $15 an hour, which he’d like to see become the minimum wage.

Beckwith believes that business owners have a responsibility to their communities. “We believe access to a home, food, water and education are a right,” he says. “Since such a change is unlikely [to come] anytime soon, we are doing what we feel is our moral obligation.”

The problem with the tiny-house push is that, as one activist put it, it relegates poor people to “glorified shacks” while blowing off the issue of economic injustice—which creates the problem of homelessness in the first place.

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THE CRISIS IN OUR MIDST

Members of homeless-rights groups like Homeless Action, the Homeless Advocacy Group, the North Bay Organizing Committee and Camp Michela have fought to undo the homeless stigma that leads to a lack of community support for solutions. In turn, elected officials here have grown more responsive than in past years.

This year, Santa Rosa made ending homelessness a priority. In recent years, under the leadership of City Councilmember Julie Combs, the city has increased shelter beds, developed dozens of affordable-housing units, increased access to public restrooms and funded shelters and programs.

“I have worked hard to create partnerships around homeless issues,” says Combs.

But her recent proposal for a 45-day moratorium on rent increases failed.

Sonoma County has created a homeless outreach team and partnered with Homeless Action and Catholic Charities to support a controversial program that allows homeless people to sleep in their cars in a safe location.

Homeless advocates have criticized the county’s efforts as woefully insufficient: outreach to vulnerable populations is of limited value in the absence of affordable housing, which is scant and largely unaffordable.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane disagrees. “I’d be the first to agree we need more affordable housing, but that critique is uninformed.”

Zane says the county’s homeless outreach support team ambitiously hopes to house 173 people in the next year. “This is an evidence-based program,” she says, “and it has already made an impact.” But the impact thus far has been small: the program housed nine people in its first 10 months.

More can be done to get people off the streets—but advocate groups say what’s absent is a sense of crisis. “The framework of our officials and, in truth, our entire community has been that of charity rather than seeing this as unacceptable,” says Adrienne Lauby, cofounder of Homeless Action. “At the moment, our elected officials do not feel that sense of urgency and outrage.”

Others are discouraged at how hard they must push to create even the smallest of changes. “It seems incredible to me that we have to work on something so basic as going to the bathroom and sleeping,” says Gerry LaLonde-Berg of the North Bay Organizing Project and Homeless Action. “We have to convince the community to prioritize meeting basic human needs.”

Carolyn Epple, an activist with Camp Michela (an advocacy group named after Michela Woolridge, a homeless woman murdered in Santa Rosa in 2012), believes local politicians are more beholden to developers and tourists than the well-being of down-and-out residents. Epple says the interests of the Sonoma County supervisors are dominated by a “pro-growth, development, supply-side economics agenda” that alienates the working class. This is not an uncommon view in a community that has seen a spike in wealth for some that’s concurrent with diminished standards for others.

“I think some county and city officials want to do right by those that are harmed,” says Epple, “but I think that their own class biases are still going to enter in. Their privileges shape their own worldview and what they see as possible and not possible.”

At the North Bay Leadership Council’s housing summit in May, organizers focused on “workforce housing,” rather than homelessness, though many homeless people are in fact part of the workforce.

Zane believes that real estate developers hold the key to more affordable housing. To that end, she held a forum earlier this year for developers to discuss affordable-housing incentives the county might kick their way.

“Every day since I have been meeting with builders and investors to discuss this,” says Zane.

The homeless may be in trouble if county leaders really think profit-minded developers are going to step up. The county has already fought off lawsuits from developers who wanted to turn rent-controlled mobile home parks into market-value condos. Often, developers simply pay “in-lieu” development fees to bypass requirements that they offer affordable units as part of their building projects.

Affordable housing can be expensive to get off the ground—but it’s not nearly as expensive as the accrued costs of not housing people. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average cost per person of an emergency room visit is $905 a day. For jail, it’s $87 a day; drug detox costs $256 a day.

Affordable housing? That’ll cost a county $31 a day per person.

What’s the human cost of doing nothing about the homeless problem? The average lifespan in the United States is 78. If you’re homeless, it’s 46.

This kind of institutionalized inaction takes a toll on people’s lives and dignity—which only serves to feed stereotypes about homelessness.

“To hear people say ‘pull yourself up from your bootstraps’ when you’ve lost everything you own—well, you don’t have any bootstraps,” says Love. “When you are at the bottom of the barrel, you are seen as dirt.”

There are ways to avoid the social cost. Development often means that rents go up and an unsustainable gap builds between available jobs and available housing. Santa Rosa has responded to this phenomenon through the collection of so-called impact fees. But those fees wind up in the general fund, where they compete with many other uses.

State level efforts have also been ineffective. As David Grabill of the Housing Advocacy Group in Santa Rosa points out, California suffers from a critical absence of resources that would hold local government accountable and mandate requiring that localities identify sites for low-income housing.

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THE VIEW FROM DOWNTOWN

Closer to home, Santa Rosa’s officials emphasized other fiscal priorities. They approved
$17 million to reunify Courthouse Square, but offered nothing on that scale to combat the city’s homeless problem—a problem that often finds its way to the very same area, much to the dismay of business owners and the local Chamber of Commerce.

Mike Montague is a co-owner of the TeeVax appliance store in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, an area where homeless people are highly visible. Homelessness, he’s discovered over the years, is more complex than he thought.

“I’ve learned that there are different categories of homeless people,” Montague says. “Some are sincerely struggling”; others he sees as the “willing homeless.” He worries that service providers enable the latter while short-changing the former.

“Between St. Vincent [de Paul], Catholic Charities and the Rescue Mission, it’s easy to be homeless in Santa Rosa,” he says.

Montague believes the services are useful for people who want to get off the street, but he thinks some just don’t want to follow social norms. He’d like to see fewer homeless people (and stronger anti-loitering laws) and better mental-health services for those who remain. “What message does this send to visitors?” Montague asks. “It’s not good.”

Still, Montague does advocate hiring homeless people who have support from social services. “You will be amazed at how appreciative and loyal they will be.”

Others seem less willing to address the crisis. Case in point: Discussions last fall between activists and officials about converting Sutter Hospital into housing for homeless centered on fear that affordable housing would anger the Chanate Road neighborhood’s wealthy constituency.

Such fear was on display in 2013 when Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) unveiled plans for homeless services and assistance to ex-foster youth in Bennett Valley in Santa Rosa. Skillful community organizing mollified neighborhood concerns, but it wasn’t easy.

“We instituted a public outreach program that educated the public about our services,” says SAY executive director Matt Martin. “We spoke at numerous organizations, and we went door to door. But most of all we listened.”

The effort paid off. Thousands of people, including some former neighborhood opponents, supported SAY’s plan.

But not every neighbor needs to be convinced that homeless services won’t ruin the neighborhood. Jacqueline Smith, a mother of two, lives in Santa Rosa’s West End, which has had ongoing struggles with the high population of homeless in the area.

“It’s a societal problem that should not be ignored,” she says. “I don’t think of homeless as ‘them’ and ‘us.’ I have friends who could easily be on the streets. If services are implemented well, it could help my children understand the importance of providing help to those less fortunate.”

While NIMBY concerns may be overstated, the underlying stigma is not. “Many of the concerns came from a lack of understanding of the population,” says Martin.

Still, the stigma and stereotypes that surround the homeless are pervasive. Even service providers can succumb.

“Everyone’s situation is different, but [service providers] see us as one big mass of individuals,” says Love. “During an intake, I was asked, ‘What is your drug of choice?’ Already there was an assumption that I was on drugs. There is an assumption that you have to look, smell and act homeless.”

Epple blames the stigma on accepted cultural narratives around individualism that need to change. “It’s as if because you are mentally ill, you are less deserving of housing,” she says. “The homeless get stuck in the idea that if you work hard you can get what you want—and that if you don’t or can’t, you are lazy and deserve to be poor.”

Love experienced this first-hand when she was homeless. “If I watch TV, they think I’m lazy; if I have a restful Sunday afternoon, they think that I am not trying to find a job. They don’t see how damn hard it is to be homeless. It takes practically everything out of you.”

Councilwoman Combs hopes to combat the stigma by drafting an ordinance that would ban housing discrimination for those with Section 8 vouchers (a common impediment to housing). But she will need the the support of activists and the homeless themselves.

“We are the only ones that really know what it feels like,” says Love. “The homeless themselves have to mobilize, and that can be hard when your self esteem is low.”

TRY A LITTLE DIGNITY

Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., is a city-sanctioned encampment run by and for people without housing. In Eugene, Ore., the city donated an acre of land for small, shed-like housing—also self-governed by residents. Rain City Housing in Vancouver, B.C., operates three no-barrier shelters, where sobriety and following curfews and rules do not come before a person’s right to be safe and sheltered.

Similar ideas have been pitched in Sonoma County. Homeless Action and Camp Michela recently submitted a proposal to the county for a sanctioned encampment. They got no direct reply, but Zane told the Bohemian she wouldn’t support it.

“Nobody is going to be happy about an encampment in their neighborhood,” Zane says, “and I think we should put our funding into permanent solutions.”

But that is years away and something needs to be done now, says Gerry LaLonde-Berg. He speaks to the value of short-term solutions like encampments. If an alternative to living near the creeks was provided, LaLonde-Berg says, “we would give people a safe place to be and improve the environment.”

Not all housing solutions will be locally applicable, and the key question for Sonoma leaders is: Are certain solutions not going to work for the county, or is the county not going to work with certain solutions?

Last February, Homeless Action and Camp Michela co-hosted a film and discussion on homelessness at the Arlene Francis Center. About a hundred people showed up, and many spoke passionately for better conditions, more housing—and more dignity.

One homeless woman who requested anonymity said that “homeless folks like myself have a vision. It may be buried deep inside, but it will emerge under nurturing conditions.”

The question is whether the city and county’s efforts will suffice to nuture those conditions.

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