Mar 29, 2017
by Angela Conte
In August of 2016, Sonoma County declared a homeless emergency. 1 Since then there have been two well-attended summits on homelessness put on by the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma. Cries for immediate solutions include rent control, and zoning & code variances for auxiliary dwelling units that allow for tiny homes, granny units and mobile home parking to rapidly alleviate the lack of affordable living units in the county. There are also dozens of community groups and organizations, both public and private agencies, working on housing the most vulnerable people we see every day on our streets. Housing the homeless, and affordable workforce housing development for all are two interconnected, but very different, issues and until we understand their differences, we won’t be able to collaborate as a community to make the kind of changes needed to solve either problem.
The county’s declaration of a homeless emergency is a formal act to focus attention on the unsheltered human beings in our communities and is part of Sonoma County’s 2015 Toolbox for Ending Homelessness Plan.2 Of the thousand or more people who find themselves without a home in the county in any given year, the majority of them will find housing on their own, either here or they may move to Oregon, or other more affordable states. The people left homeless on the street and in shelters are the ones who have fallen through the social support cracks, and have not been able to get back on track by themselves. It is this population of people that the county and its public and private non-profits agency are working so hard to support.
They are not people who choose to live on the street or in their cars.
No one in their right mind chooses to live on the street, which is why so many are NOT in their right minds. The majority of homeless in America today are suffering from untreated mental health issues, or something called “dual diagnosis,” which means they are both dealing with untreated mental health issues, and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
The second-highest population of people on the streets are Veterans, many of whom are also not exactly in their right minds either, having suffered both the mental and physical ravages of war. Disabled individuals who cannot hold jobs because their disability makes them unemployable, make up a huge part of the homeless population. And seniors who are simply too old to work, have insufficient savings and benefits to cover basic living costs, no families to care for them, and who have become disenfranchised from society. Seniors are our nation's largest growing population of homeless people today.3
We also have many young people who don’t have support systems in place, are without families, who have no job or low-paying jobs, and many of whom are aged-out foster care children unprepared for independent living. And the smallest, but most heartbreaking of the homeless subgroups are families who are most often immigrants or single mothers.4
The most important thing to understand is that anyone who is homeless, but is a healthy and functioning adult, is most likely working, or in school, or between jobs, and not making enough money to pay for, or able to find, affordable housing - or – one of the very few who may have a past criminal history which often makes them unemployable for the rest of their life.
If anyone tries to tell you that the adults on the street are there by choice because they are lazy, or like living without a roof over their head, they are very wrong. Facts and reality prove that the population of homeless people who live in shelters, on the street, under bridges, and in camps, need help and community support, not ridicule and criticism. Until we begin to understand their needs, we will not be able to give them the help they need to find and maintain housing, no matter how many new homes we develop in the County.
We also have a 10-year shortage of affordable, “workforce” housing for the working “middle class”, and an out-of-control rental rate rise, due to this shortage.5 Of the number of homes needed in our County, over 80% are needed for these working middle-class people making over $62,000 a year, which is the county’s average income. They are our teachers, our healthcare providers, our fire and police officers, and the people who build and maintain our homes and businesses.
Nationally, 11 million people already spend half (50%) of their income on housing, and most everyone else spends over 30% of their income on housing.6 If we don’t create affordable housing for our middle-class citizens, we won’t have a working class to maintain our community, infrastructure and businesses that support our economy.
Building is only a Part of the Solution
Sonoma County is at risk of being negatively impacted by lack of affordable housing. We must be cautious that we don’t become victims of Urban Sprawl like east and south Bay Area communities that suffer from lack of vision and practical design. Building more housing improves lives because it offers more opportunities for everyone to be housed in safe affordable housing, but building alone will not end homelessness for the chronically homeless and not building affordable homes can only destroy us economically.
A Community’s Challenge
The conflict today with building housing in Sonoma County comes down to some who believe that any new development risks destroying the beauty that brings people here from across the planet to support our tourist economy versus the need for more housing to sustain the people who work in this industry. And the question then becomes, if we decide to build housing, can it be well-designed for all income levels, and add to the quality of our community? Most of all, how do we house our mentally challenged individuals, disabled people, young people and old people in ways that work for them and society as well?
I will be speaking to these issues of affordable housing for all, and smart healthy community development, in more depth in future articles, and about the types of housing and social support system we need to maintain the quality and vibrancy of our beautiful County.