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Housing the Unhoused - Sonoma County


Housing the Unhoused - Sonoma County

By Jed Heibel

Lack of affordable healthcare, sudden acute illness, chronic disease, mental illness, the disease of addiction, financial hardship, family struggles - all of our lives are touched by one or more of these things during our lifetime. Yet we recover, how? Our family, friends, and community, including accessible healthcare providers, these are the people who wrap around us, provide support, and advocate for our needs. Together these people form our personal safety net. They are what prevents us from prolonged suffering, the people who lift us back up again when we stumble. 

What if we didn’t have that safety net? 

How far would we fall and for how long, before we could recover to our previously stable lives? If there is one thing that you can point to that separates the housed from the unhoused, it’s that safety net. Imagine facing life’s challenges that we all experience, without that support. 

Homelessness is a complex social and economic issue with no simple answer. One thing we can be certain of, doing nothing will not help. The costs associated with homelessness in our communities are many. There is lost business revenue when people sleep and loiter in front of businesses; public resources such as ambulance, police and fire services spend valuable time transporting people to the emergency room for medical care and drug and alcohol treatment. Scarce mental health and social service dollars are wasted while we try to locate elusive homeless encampments to engage people in services. 

Can we do better? 

Yes, we can. We can join the national movement to use comprehensive data, evidenced based service models, and a wealth of easily accessible research, to inform our discussion. 

Tax payer dollars are not wasted on shelter and housing programs. On the contrary, the money spent on those public service transports, emergency room visits, law enforcement interactions, repeated stays in seasonal shelters without case management, lost business revenue, all of these things cost society far more money in the long term than if we would address the core issues of homelessness now. If we do that - establish accessible medical care, counseling, trauma informed services, housing resources, employment training programs, financial literacy training, we save millions of dollars down the road. 

But, the homeless are mostly drug addicts and alcoholics who don’t want our help, right? WRONG., there is an increase in the use of opioids in the homeless community. There is also an unprecedented increase in heroin use in our housed population throughout the country. Yes, alcohol abuse is a problem in the homeless community. Binge drinking and alcohol abuse are a growing problem throughout all socio-economic classes in the United States. Anyone who has walked through downtown entertainment districts such as Guerneville’s Main Street, Petaluma’s Kentucky Street, Santa Rosa’s 4th Street, at midnight on a warm weekend evening has experienced firsthand the problems alcohol addiction creates in our communities. 

That slurring, angry homeless person we pass on the street, is their behavior really any different than our friends, family and neighbors who struggle with addiction? That kind, intelligent, well-spoken uncle who drinks heavily at the family holiday party and suddenly becomes sullen and slurs his words before passing out in the easy chair, is he really any more or less deserving of help than someone who doesn’t have a home? The difference between the housed and unhoused struggling with addiction is that what goes on inside the private walls of our homes is just that, private. When you don’t have a home, you are exposed to the view of the public during your best and worst moments, twenty four hours a day, every day. 

Don’t services in our community for the homeless encourage more homeless people to come here?  NOT REALLY.

There is no evidence that supports this myth. In fact, the data suggests the opposite. In the 2015 Homeless Census conducted by the County of Sonoma, 86% of the unhoused reported their last permanent address to be within Sonoma County. 

What we need to do is bring the services to where the homeless are. When someone is homeless, they are marginalized, stigmatized by society. After some time, they lose their identity as an unemployed carpenter or a senior citizen on a fixed income with mounting medical bills, and they identify as just one thing, “a homeless person”. At that point, they don’t see a way out. They don’t seek out the best shelter in the state and travel there, why would they? They have been told through words and actions of those around them that they are “lost to us, beyond recovery”. If you bring the services to them, build trust, engage them, show a belief in their ability to rise above their challenges, even when they don’t believe it themselves, you provide hope. 

Hope, optimism and a belief in yourself as someone deserving of a home, a family, a job, a community, is what keeps us going, keeps us housed, keeps us engaged in life. 

I propose that we come together as a community, a community of business owners, residents, service agencies, concerned citizens, who work together toward a common goal of ending the problem before us - ensuring that everyone in our community, housed or not, has a safety net. 

In doing that we can prevent future homelessness for those at risk, and for those who have slipped through the cracks, we can help them back up and into housing of their own.

Don along the Russian River


Jed Heibel is Program Manager of  Homeless Services at West County Health Centers, Inc.