COVID complicates winter homelessness services, providers push forward

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, January 6, 2022

Respite for unsheltered people from freezing temperatures and the rain in Sonoma County looks different in the pandemic than perhaps before, according to community development commission officials.

On Dec. 28 and Dec. 29, Homeless Action! and the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights issued press releases calling for immediate relief for unsheltered people during the recent winter freeze.

Both requested unused facilities in the county like the Veterans Memorial Hall and the Santa Rosa Fairground buildings be opened to keep unhoused people warm and dry, pointing to the precedent for designating spaces as large shelter sites in past emergencies, like wildfires.

On Dec. 30, a Sonoma County press release announced a cold weather warning from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3, with more shelter resources coming to serve homeless residents over anticipated freezing temperatures.

The county made notice that Petaluma People Services would staff a warming center at the Salvation Army in the city from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3, while the City of Santa Rosa and Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa would put together a nighttime outdoor warming tent from the night of Dec. 30 to Jan. 2, though it would not be a “sleeping location.”

The same county press release said that those seeking information about finding shelter during the cold snap could call the county’s Coordinated Entry System Monday through Friday. According to Kathleen Finigan, who sits on the Coordinated Entry committee and serves as the media contact for Homeless Action!, when she called the phone line, her call was unanswered and she was sent to voicemail.

The county said that 53 additional beds were made available across Reach for Home, Redwood Gospel Mission and Social Advocates for Youth and that winter shelters would be open from the start of December to the end of March in 2022.

Homeless Action! and the Commission on Human Rights voiced that 53 bed spaces still left most of the county’s estimated 3,000 unhoused locals out in the cold and wet.

But coordinating a massive shelter isn’t feasible or necessarily as effective during the pandemic as it was during past fire disasters, according to Dave Kiff, the county’s interim director of the Community Development Commission (CDC).

Especially given the advent of the omicron variant, “It’s unlikely that we would have been able to successfully stand up the kind of warming center that they envisioned, which was congregate and large,” he said. “One, they’re difficult to staff.”

Local service providers are facing staffing issues running existing shelters, Kiff said, so mustering the numbers to operate an expansive winter shelter is challenging. Second, Kiff said not many unsheltered people want to go into congregate settings and risk catching COVID-19.

“Three years ago, a big congregate facility would have made a lot of sense, and it did during the fires because COVID and the fires were not overlapping. But COVID and the cold right now are overlapping,” he said.

Only two or three came to stay overnight at the warming center in Petaluma, despite room for 20 people. More gathered at the Santa Rosa outdoor nighttime warming tent, Kiff said, supposing on an anecdotal basis that unhoused people feel safer outdoors than indoors at this time.

Instead of opening new shelters, the CDC’s Ending Homelessness Program Manager Michael Gause focuses on developing non-congregate shelter opportunities, like short and long-term hotel stays where unhoused people get their own room. Gause said the county supports local service providers like West County Community Services (WCCS) and Reach for Home with state and federal funding.

Reach for Home partners with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to host a winter shelter in Healdsburg, said its chief executive officer, Margaret Sluyk. The shelter opens when the weather drops to 37 degrees or below and when severe rain persists two days in a row.

Volunteers provide warm dinners for everyone before helping switch the tables out for sleeping cots and blankets. Ten to 15 people stay over on any given night the shelter is open, and most just want to sleep, Sluyk said.

Unhoused visitors can get connected to Coordinated Entry for more permanent shelter and other services, and “a lot of times, we’ll have warm socks for them or access to hats or scarves, just depending on what supplies we have,” she said.

Sluyk stated this winter shelter is the only one of its kind in north county. Reach for Home has been working with the City of Cloverdale and the county to provide more resources there, Sluyk said, while fewer people from Windsor seek the organization’s services.

While Reach for Home hasn’t found its match in Cloverdale for a hotel program, she said the group has been awarded Project Homekey funding for temporary housing pending the City of Healdsburg’s purchase of the L & M Motel and subsequent construction. The site could house 22 people, according to Sluyk.

Executive Director Tim Miller said WCCS staff are operating at maximum capacity to run Guerneville’s 24-7 COVID navigation site and maintain their ongoing services under the pandemic. WCCS has managed the Guerneville site for 26 months in a row, currently at its limit of 27 homeless people spaced out in the shelter.

Miller said two full-time outreach workers in Sebastopol and the Lower Russian River are out offering coats and sleeping bags to those staying outdoors and directing unsheltered people to resources and more permanent places to stay.

He shared that on Jan. 4, a city professional would conduct the final walk-through of some apartments in Park Village in Sebastopol after a lengthy remodeling process. Four dilapidated one-bedroom apartments had been converted into two, two-bedroom apartments that Miller hopes can house families on WCCS’ waiting list to move in.

Between county-led non-congregate shelters and Project Homekey sites, more than 200 people are “off the streets,” Gause said. While neither CDC official knew what the Veterans Memorial Hall or Fairground buildings in Santa Rosa are being used for, Kiff said the question returns to what service provider had the capacity to run the operation and who would want to go there.

“It does point out that COVID and the cold weather are a real challenge when it comes to providing the right services to the unhoused,” Kiff said, adding that’s why the hotel programs are the way to go rather than large congregate sites.

The press releases from Homeless Action! and the Commission on Human Rights mentioned two people living outdoors had died in Guerneville in the same week in December. The CDC officials didn’t deny this was possible but said they didn’t have “close knowledge” or evidence of it and that the health department didn’t either.

Miller shared he knew of one person who died in Guerneville, but refrained from sharing details out of privacy.

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