Homeless Emergency in Santa Rosa: California town amps up efforts to combat homelessness

A town in California is taking a huge step in combating homelessness, while also trying to give the issue statewide recognition. The Santa Rosa City Council moved to declare a local state of emergency after a homeless man, 32 year old Cirak Tesfazgi, was stabbed to death in a doorway where he often slept.

Homelessness in Santa Rosa is not a new problem. In January of last year, a census count found over 3,000 Sonoma County residents were homeless. Only about 1,000 of them were in homeless shelters the day the count was taken and the other 2,000 had no shelter whatsoever. But those numbers are potentially higher – those who couch surf or live in their cars instead of having a permanent residence are not necessarily counted.

Celeste Austin, program director for women’s day shelter The Living Room, says those numbers have been increasing. The Living Room’s programs run from 8:30 am – 1:00 pm, so Austin interacts with people who have no other shelter every day.

“A few days ago, I saw a mother and her teenage son who were still at our program after program [was over] for about 2 or 3 hours because they had nowhere else to go. The place that they’re staying, which is a shelter allows them to go back into the shelter at 5:30, to sleep on a floor in a cafeteria where they have cots,” Austin recalls. “It was really hot here, about 90 to 95 degrees. They were under a tree, they had water. But that was what they were dealing with until they could get back in.”

Three measures have been devised to combat the issue. The first would declare a shelter crisis to make it easier for the city to use currently existing buildings as shelters, the second would declare a local emergency, and the third would request that Governor Jerry Brown declare a state of emergency across California. If declaration of an emergency passed, the measure would remain in effect until anyone seeking shelter can find it within 30 days. In addition, the measure would need to be re-approved every 30 days to keep the state of emergency active.

The first measure is especially crucial considering a huge issue Santa Rosa and the rest of Sonoma County is facing is a lack of space for the homeless to take refuge.

“We are trying to implement a housing first plan, but we don’t have any housing,” says City Council member Julie Combs.

Redwood Gospel Mission, a Christian homeless shelter based in Santa Rosa, tried to change that. The shelter proposed expanding their locations to Roseland, a process Executive Director Jeff Gillman says took three years, but the move was rejected. While Redwood had located a 3 acre site at an abandoned concrete plant and indicated it would be double the size of their downtown campus, its proposal was missing detailed floor plans among other things the Council needed to make an approval. Combs said the plan was just “too vague.”

“I think it sends a mixed message” in the wake of the homelessness emergency, a slightly frustrated Gillman says, but adds that Redwood is in the process of appealing the decision and will meet individually with City Council members to discuss specifics if necessary.

No housing coupled with a high cost of living in Sonoma County adds to the difficulties. Combs notes the massive gap between median income and home price; median income per household falls between the $60k-70k mark, but median home price has surged to over $500k. And that’s not to mention those who may be renting their homes or apartments, Austin says.

“It is clear there is not enough housing in Sonoma County. It’s a very expensive place to live and more and more people are being pushed out of their housing because of landlords who are raising the rent and increasing the cost of living,” says Austin. “There’s not really such a thing as affordable housing unless you’re going through section 8 or some other kind of assistance programs that help subsidize individuals housing cost.”

A final vote on the three measures will happen later in August. Combs says she believes the local community will respond well to the measures and understand their necessity, but is worried about the statewide angle, claiming that Governor Jerry Brown “hasn’t exactly been friendly” towards the cause of homelessness and that he once discontinued redevelopment funds.

“I’m not holding my breath for the governor,” Combs says. “But I’m hoping he will see the light.”

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Tessa Roy is a freelance writer currently based in Boston.

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