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Sonoma County Gazette
Chris Brokate at Luke's Shelter
Chris Brokate of Clean River alliance, connects with a homeless man whose shelter was at risk from the rising river, which was at risk from this man's shelter.

Helping Homeless - How Do Advocates for the Homeless Stay Motivated.

Feb 1, 2019
by Will Carruthers


Homelessness is one of Sonoma County’s most intractable problems. Despite the efforts of local activists, nonprofits, and government agencies, the number of people living on the streets, in vehicles, and in improvised shelters remains largely unchanged from year to year.

The problem has been going on for decades and the situation has only grown worse as housing prices continue to rise.

An annual federal report on homelessness found that Sonoma County had the third largest homeless population – 2,657 in 2018 - and third highest number of unsheltered youth – 715 – of any “largely suburban” county in the country.

There was also a significant increase in the number of chronically homeless individuals in the county over the past ear – from 598 in 2017 to 747 in 2018 – according to the county’s point-in-time homeless count last year.

So why, if the situation rarely changes, do people continue to advocate for and support the hundreds of people living on the streets and how do they stay involved despite a lack of notable progress?

The Gazette set out to find the answer by interviewing a few local advocates for the homeless.

Personal Connections

Kaery and Sally SorensonForKeary and Sally Sorenson, the issue is personal. The couple lived on the streets and in shelters of and on for decades beginning in the 1980s.

In 1995, they began cleaning local beaches and, six years ago, they volunteered for the first meeting of the Clean River Alliance, a local nonprofit founded in 2014 with the grand goal of cleaning the shores of the Russian River from its source, in Mendocino County, to its mouth on the Sonoma Coast.

As members of the Alliance, the Sorensons used their knowledge of the local homeless population to assist the Alliance’s founder,Chris Brokate.

Now, members of the Alliance – who call themselves Garbage Patch Kids - pick up trash from homeless encampments along the river every Thursday.

The strategy has two benefits: volunteers bond with the residents of the encampments and help them solve problems when they can; and trash that might have once reached into the Pacific Ocean no longer goes into the Russian River. 

To Keary, it’s crucial to offer people experiencing homelessness a clean, safe place to live. Helping people living on the streets maintain a clean living space is a matter of human decency, Keary says. If they aren’t helped, their conditions would only get worse.

“Having lived on the streets, we know that there are many different causes for homelessness,” Keary says. “Quite a few are not mentally stable and they just need us. If people like Sally and I don’t reach out to them, nobody does and they get lost.”

What’s the biggest misconception people have of those living on the streets?

Likely that they aren’t people like you. The Sorensons are educated, but both struggled with addiction for years before meeting each other.

Even when they had enough money, finding housing was a challenge, because they had no recent rental history.

The couple spent two and a half years living in their car while saving enough money to make a down payment on an apartment, according to Keary.

“If we don’t care for people like that, they die. They live a miserable life out in front of everybody, screaming for help,” Keary says. “Unless you’ve ever stood in front of a restaurant with a hundred people eating and you haven’t had any food in four days and no one even offers you a morsel, you don’t know what it is.”

As a result of their check-ins with people living in encampments near the river, the Sorensons have been able to help connect local people living on the streets with housing and work.

One man they met living next to the river in 2017 had lived in Sonoma County for 30 years, but no one realized where he was living. After posting about the man’s situation, community members offered him work and housing. 

Maintaining Compassion and Passion

Kathleen Finigan, an activist with Homeless Action!, has a similar sense of urgency with her activism. Finigan began working on police accountability issues in recent years, before beginning to work on homeless issues.

For Finigan, compassion is not the challenge. Instead, it’s continuing in the face of the immovable rock face that is the status quo.

“My challenge is maintaining HOPE,” Finigan said. “I’m frustrated and sad that human rights are being violated… and that progress goes at a snail’s pace while people on the street are dying.”

That said, non-action is not a better answer.

Self-care is also important. At the moment, Finigan says she’s taking a break from activism to recover. “I’m in a down period. I need some rest,” Finigan said.

For a list of Winter Shelters in Sonoma County - visit:

Sonoma County Homeless Resources Guide:

Funding for Homeless Services Now Available: 

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission (Commission) is requesting proposals for activities and projects which provide new or enhanced Homeless Services for Sonoma County. The Commission is utilizing funds from local, state, and federal sources, including the State Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP).

Applicants to the Consolidated NOFA are encouraged to explore creative approaches when submitting projects for review, and applications for any eligible use will be considered, provided the applicant demonstrates its ability to deliver the proposed services and manage the awarded funds. 

Visit to view more information and download application materials.

Reach for HOME

FAQs - from Reach for Home -

WHY are people homeless? 

The most common causes of homelessness are loss of job or income, family breakup, and—most significantly—the lack of affordable housing.

Do some homeless people have jobs?

Many of the parents in homeless families are employed, but in low-paying jobs that don’t provide enough income to cover housing. Living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency can lead to a financial crisis resulting in homelessness.

Is homelessness a problem that can be solved? 

YES, with a programmatic approach, the homeless can return to stable living environments. Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities director of shelter & housing in Santa Rosa, states that a redoubled push to quickly house those needing basic assistance, including rent subsidies, appears to be paying off. The housing retention rate among residents who have participated in transitional housing programs so far is about 94 percent.

Is it really possible for an individual to make a difference in solving homelessness?

Reach for Home programs are working to end homelessness thanks to strong community involvement, which demonstrates to family and individual clients that they can rebuild their lives. Individual donations, partnerships, and volunteer efforts really do make a difference by providing clients with the support they need.

How can I get help?

If you are interested in supporting our mission to serve the homeless, please CALL us at 707-433-6161

- visit our website to  

EMAIL us at


We are located at 442 Hudson St., Healdsburg. T




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