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Sonoma County homeless count shows 11% increase from last year as new program launches to address need

PIX Now - Morning Edition 6/20/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 6/20/24 10:36

Sonoma County's preliminary point-in-time count data showed an 11% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in 2024 compared to 2023, but county officials are hopeful a new program will address the growing need.

Through a partnership between Sonoma County, the cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma, and homelessness prevention nonprofit All Home, a $2.6 million program tentatively called "Keep Sonoma Housed" is set to launch this summer. The program will be a two-year pilot and will provide hubs throughout the county to serve as access points of services for people at risk of falling into homelessness.

Michael Gause, Sonoma County Department of Health Services' Ending Homelessness team manager, explained that the support could range from emergency rental assistance to help with utility payments, along with case management services.

"The gap we have noticed over the last year or two is the lack of a unified prevention program," he said.

Gause said the county and Santa Rosa have each committed $500,000 to the effort; Petaluma is contributing $300,000, and All Home has matched that with private philanthropy dollars for a total of $2.6 million. The city of Santa Rosa will be the lead agency for the pilot.

"A common misconception about homelessness is that people want to be homeless. That's not the case," Gause said. "There are a variety of different reasons -- a lot of homelessness can come from a sudden emergency or could come from years of trauma. It's a multi-layered, multifaceted issue that really affects people differently."

DHS said possible causes for the increase in homelessness in 2024 included the closure of COVID-19-era sheltering and supportive programs in late 2023 when state and federal funding ended, along with issues like the continued lack of affordable housing and homelessness prevention programs.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said that while he would have liked to see lower numbers, Sonoma County's increase in those experiencing homelessness was not surprising as many counties throughout the state are experiencing similar outcomes.

"We need to continue to invest in proven strategies to decrease our unhoused population and ease the burden on our communities," Rabbitt continued.

The final and full PIT count report will be available this summer, but preliminary figures showed a total of 2,522 people experiencing homelessness as counted on the day the count was conducted, which was Jan. 26, from 5-10 a.m. This was up from 2,266 in 2023 -- a year when the PIT count had shown a 22% decrease over 2022.

"Department of Health Services staff worked so hard during the pandemic to house people and then to rehouse them once the COVID-generated programs started closing, but when the funding disappeared, large numbers of beds disappeared as well," said DHS director Tina Rivera.

Rivera highlighted some positive outcomes from the 2024 PIT count, including a decline in homelessness for families. She also expressed excitement to launch the Keep Sonoma Housed pilot.

"We are hoping to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place," she said. 

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