WHO IS HOMELESS?
Homelessness is a circumstance through which people pass, not a personal characteristic.
For some it is a short-term emergency caused by a job loss, a family or medical problem, a large increase in rent, or some other unavoidable situation. With some assistance, many of these families and individuals regain some form of stable housing within weeks or months. Some situations take much longer to solve, due to large family size, credit problems, eviction history, lack of accessible housing for people with disabilities, or housing costs greatly exceeding what their incomes can support.
For others, it is a chronic problem, often aggravated by a mental, physical , and/or substance abuse disability. For people who have spent years on the street or who cycle repeatedly through bouts of homelessness, more intensive support is needed to stabilize their lives and maintain long-term housing. Chronic Homelessness is defined by HUD as having a disability and being homeless for at least one year or four times in the last three years.
Most homeless people look like you. And me. And any other people. While the greatest number are Caucasian, people of every ethnicity are homeless in Sonoma County. Many homeless people are working, and there are numerous families with children, as well as youth trying to make it on their own, seniors on fixed incomes and people with disabilities. Large families find it particularly difficult to find affordable housing. Also, people with mental illness, substance abuse issues, illiteracy, emotional instability, depression, or other personal problems often find it very difficult to manage their lives independently and too often become homeless for lack of effective treatment and supportive housing. Most (77% in a 2011 study) who are homeless here have lived in Sonoma County for considerable time, and their only family, friends, and job contacts here may be here.
Characteristics most homeless people have in common are lack of funds to secure appropriate housing, lack of a support system (many have outstayed their welcome with friends and family), and at least some level of fear and trauma. Many are constantly afraid due to the dangers and uncertainties of living on the streets, and/or experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to military service or childhood abuse. Specific demographic data on homeless people in Sonoma County, why they became homeless, and the challenges they face may be found in the 2011 Sonoma County Homeless Census and Survey.
The Obama Administration recently developed a comprehensive definition of homelessness that could apply across the many federal departments that serve homeless people. The actual Rule (Federal Register, December 5, 2011) is 26 pages long, but the core definition includes four categories. 1.) Individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence and includes a subset for an individual who resided in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an Institution where he or she temporarily resided; 2.) individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence; 3.) unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition; and 4.) individuals and families who are fleeing. or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses this definition of homelessness to determine eligibility for funding.
Sonoma County experienced an approximately 40% increase in both homelessness and hunger between 2009 and 2011. It is difficult to accurately determine the exact number of homeless people in Sonoma County. However the County conducts a Point in Time Count or Homeless Census and Survey in January of every other year. The last was in 2011, followed by a shelter count in 2012. In 2011, 4539 homeless people were counted. Applying a HUD-approved formula for predicting an annualized figure, 12,565 people in Sonoma County were estimated to become homeless at some point in 2011. A full Census and Survey will be conducted again in January 2013. In 2005 and 2007, the Task Force for the Homeless conducted these studies under contract wit the County. These “Counts” and accompanying surveys provide detailed information on the numbers, locations, characteristics, situations, and issues faced by homeless people.
The homeless population is fluid, rising with our economic downturn and employment layoffs and leveling off in better economic times, though rising housing costs also increase homeless numbers. Also, many homeless people do want to be noticed due to fear, embarrassment, distrust, incapacity, or wanting not to be hassled. Others, including many working people who are without housing, do not identify themselves as homeless due to the stigma attached to that term. Many homeless people are out of sight in their vehicles, or in remote or hidden camps throughout the county.HUD generally estimates 1% to 1.5% of an area’s population to be homeless over the period of a year. In Sonoma County the number is closer to 2.5%.
WHY ARE PEOPLE HOMELESS IN SONOMA COUNTY?
The 2011 Homeless Census and Survey document noted above details specific reasons people state for being homeless. Job losses, alcohol and drug use, and family conflicts rank highly. Sonoma County has frequently ranked among the top ten (sometimes the top 5) least affordable areas in which to live in the entire United States. Housing prices may be higher in other parts of the Bay Area and elsewhere in the U.S., but it is the mismatch between prevailing wages and the cost of housing that makes our situation so extreme. The California Association of Realtors has noted that the “Northern Wine Country” along with Santa Barbara, was the least affordable area in California, with only 15% of residents able to afford to purchase the average priced home.
Once someone has lost their home, it is more difficult to get back into housing. While the recent economic crisis has lowered housing prices, rents have gone up due to so many people losing their homes to foreclosure, and purchasing a home is still out of reach for most low income and homeless people, in part due to credit problems and tightened mortgage qualification standards. Lack of housing affordability affects many middle class occupations as well, and has created ongoing problems in recruiting police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, and other professionals.
Making our situation even more dire, Sonoma County has large numbers of low-wage workers in agriculture, tourism, retail, lumber, fishing, and service industries, many of whom are part-time, and/or seasonal employees with few if any benefits. While our local economy depends on these workers, they have few options to find housing in our county. It is these workers who are most at risk for homelessness, along with people challenged with mental or physical disabilities, substance abuse problems, lack of education or job skills, women and children fleeing domestic abuse, youth aging out of foster care or running from abusive or uncaring households, and those confronting overwhelming personal issues.
Homeless people often find themselves victims of discrimination. Even when housing can be found and when the homeless person or family has money in hand, some landlords may be wary of renting to them because of their perception of the reliability of someone who has experienced homelessness. The homeless person may need help with rental deposits, or with guarantees to offset prior questionable credit history. They may have physical limitations that housing must accommodate. Ramps, wider doorways, larger bathrooms, and handrails may be necessary. As housing becomes less and less affordable, there may be even fewer units available that meet accessibility needs as well as economic realities for the physically challenged.
Some homeless people have criminal histories, in part because many find jail to be their primary accessible housing program, and because many are picked up for behavior that would not happen or would not be illegal if they were not homeless, such as trespassing, being drunk in public, or urinating in public. Finding housing is extremely difficult for these people. Of course there are also, just as in the general population, those who have committed serious crimes, but this is a small minority of homeless people, even of those who have spent time in jail. In terms of cost to society, both financial and otherwise, it is far more effective as well as humane to help a person to stabilize their lives and secure and maintain housing than it is to keep them in jail.
Some homeless people have pets that are their closest companions, and have trouble accessing shelter or housing because they refuse to disguard or to be separated from the animals who often have been their best friends and protectors for many years.
Childcare and related costs are barriers for many working parents who are seeking housing. In addition, homeless people have often used up their savings and credit capacity simply trying to live. Often they own no personal vehicle and must rely on public transport. It is important that their homes be close to transportation lines so they can reach jobs, shopping, medical facilities, and supportive services. A much more detailed statistical analysis and information from interviews with homeless people are available in the most recent local Homeless Count Report.
Solutions to homelessness vary with the individual, and require a wide range of activities from prevention through crisis, transitional, and long term housing and services. There are specific goals and responsibilities targeted in the county’s Ten Year Homeless Action Plan passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2007 and updated annually.
We must create adequate affordable housing that is accessible to those who need it. Permanent supportive housing (permanent homes with services must be available to people with disabilities who have been homelessness. Some people can avoid homelessness with a small amount of assistance to pay a bill or cover the mortgage for a month. Sonoma County is fortunate to have the HCA Homeless Assistance Fund – a privately funded deposit and first month’s rental assistance program originally founded by the donor and the Task Force Executive Officer when she directed the County Human Services Commission, and administered by Community Action Partnership Sonoma. While over $6 Million has been donated to assist hundreds of families and individuals in it’s nearly 20 years of existence, there is always a need for more. Prevention also comes in the form of economic and job development, substance abuse, health, and mental health services, and discharge planning improvements for people leaving hospitals, incarceration, or other institutions. Emergency shelter and services must be available on a short term basis for those who suddenly find themselves homeless or those currently on the streets, and transitional housing and services are important resources for those who need 6 months to two years (program vary) to build income and stability to find permanent housing on the open market. Many clients benefit from ongoing support even after finding permanent housing, to help them retain their stability. And people must have access to essential services and benefits for which they are eligible such as food stamps, Social Security, and consistent, integrated health care.
Local agencies and programs have a strong record of success with those homeless people they have the capacity to serve. We do know what works for people. We have the will, the caring, and the knowledge to help people reach their goals. What is often lacking is the funding to provide essential services and to offer those services to the number of people in need and for the length of time some need them. We also lack enough facilities (and community support to site facilities) in which to provide such housing and services, and the affordable, accessible housing stock for people who could otherwise live independently.
Sonoma County agencies are working together effectively with the support of the Task Force, the Continuum of Care Planning Group, and other entities to address gaps in the service system and to secure the resources to provide services. Each aspect of the local service system, is generally described here. Please see Data Resources below for links to additional data.
Affordable Housing Development (including supportive related government policies) Policies that local cities and the county unincorporated area can and in some cases already do use to facilitate the development and accessibility of affordable housing include:
- Jobs-Housing Linkage Fees
- Inclusionary Zoning
- Housing Trust Funds
- Fee waivers
For information on these approaches or the status of affordable housing development in Sonoma County we recommend you consult the Sonoma County Housing Coalition at the Housing Advocacy Group, or the Task Force Advocacy Committee, and/or the article entitled “Jobs-Housing Linkage Fees Urged” in the April/May 2003 issue of the Task Force Reporter in the newsletter archives on this site.
Prevention services include funds to assist people in paying one-time rent or mortgage to avoid eviction, or deposits to help people secure rental housing. In Sonoma County, the HCA Fund operated through Community Action Partnership- Sonoma and the Season of Sharing Fund are some examples of such programs. Mental health and substance abuse treatment also assist people in avoiding homelessness. Since many homeless people were abused as children, leading to low self-esteem and impaired coping skills, child abuse prevention and treatment also are preventive of homelessness.
Emergency Shelter and Services
Emergency shelters are generally available on short notice to people on the streets. Most provide 30 to 60 days accommodations while clients search for housing, jobs, and/or address their personal issues and needs related to homelessness. Some provide primarily overnight shelter. Information on specific shelters in Sonoma County can be found in the Homeless Resource Guide and Continuum of Care Plan referenced elsewhere on this site.
Transitional Housing and Services
Transitional Housing provides six months to two years of housing during which the client pays some portion of the rent, though less than market rate, builds income and saves money for the transition to permanent housing, and receives services to help them stabilize their lives.
Permanent Supportive Housing
Permanent Supportive Housing provides permanent housing for people with disabilities combined with the services necessary to assist them to function at their highest possible level. Permanent Supportive Housing has proved to be highly effective in terms of outcomes for clients and saves public funds through avoiding hospitalization and other institutionalization.
Many people need new personal support systems – a new sense of community and connection – to help them maintain their situations once they have achieved their goals for housing and jobs. Connecting housed people with formerly or currently homeless families and individuals has been successful in helping these people to form healthy relationships in the community and to maintain stable and productive lives.
Collaborative Planning and Program Development
The Task Force on the Homeless offers advocacy, community education, resource and fund development, and collaborative program development. It explores issues in depth, shares information, discusses joint action at its monthly General Meetings, and works through its committees and collaborative projects. Current collaborative program development efforts include the Homeless Court Protocol Project, a Health Care for the Homeless clinic, and participation in the Frequent Users of Health Services Initiative.
The Continuum of Care is a countywide planning body that prepares an annual plan to secure funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and works year round through committees on issues such as Services Integration, Training, and Information Management, Ending Chronic Homelessness, Community Housing Development, Community Acceptance, a Homeless Management Information System, and related issues.
We urge you to search the archives of the Task Force Reporter Newsletter for articles related to homelessness and disability, ending chronic homelessness, and related subjects for more detailed information on our local situation.
Comprehensive information and statistical data on homeless shelter, services, and plans to address homelessness in Sonoma County is also available in the Sonoma County Continuum of Care Plan, a document that is constructed annually by Sonoma County public jurisdictions and non-profit agencies as part of the Continuum of Care Planning Group, and submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order for local programs to be eligible for HUD funding. The County has most recently been receiving approximately $2 Million per year in Continuum of Care funds.
For information on causes, circumstances, and solutions to homelessness nationally, we suggest you visit:
- The Corporation for Supportive Housing
- National Alliance to End Homelessness
- The National Coalition for the Homeless
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council
- The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
- Solutions for America
- Substance Aubuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)