By Mikeal (Ozzy) OToole
When I came to Santa Rosa in late 1998 there wasn't an "unhoused" problem. I remember walking from Denny's on Santa Rosa Avenue to Safeway on Mendocino and hardly seeing any other unhoused people.
Now I see unhoused in every nook and cranny of our community. And make no mistake, these are people that have been part of this community, born and raised here. The Point in Place Count has shown up to 85 percent of Sonoma County’s homeless fall into that category.
Why is this? it is because in 2014 there was a wind on the horizon of housing reform which had no chance. So, in a knee-jerk reaction, places that normally catered to low income people started dumping them on the street, places that took HUD (Housing and Urban Development funding) were not renewing leases. Instead they started upgrading their properties to draw in those who could pay higher rents from the Bay Area, displacing the largest number of Sonoma County residents in history.
So then to address this growing crisis, and to appease those that sought gentrification, those in authority chose to develop a system that they would use time and again. They used it at "Homeless Hill,” 6th Street overpass, Safe Parking, and then Camp Michela and the Joe Rodota Trail.
And they are using it again, which will only produce the same outcomes – a rush to solve a problem years in creation. It is a direct result of the city’s and county’s neglect to address this proactively. But it only an issue because the wealthy and powerful have a voice in our community and those who are most affected by this crisis have no voice at all. The municipalities also step up when there is a possible funding benefit for them, which is where we find ourselves now.
There are two factors that fueled the sudden need to address the unhoused crisis The first is that the more affluent people who use the Joe Rodota Trail are bothered and frightened by the dirty and unhoused people who live along the trail. The second is that a hefty chunk of homeless funding is coming up for distribution to the tune of $250 million and Sonoma County lost out on the last round.
But they have no real plan except to throw up encampments, and use the same methodology as in the past and hope it works. The reason is that there is little to no permanent low-income housing, and what does exist is priced at market value. But HUD doesn't cover market rate for low housing income in Sonoma County.
Now what needs to happen in a realistic, proactive and progressive way, is that the dignity that any other resident in Sonoma County is afforded, the people in these encampments should also be afforded. Because the 9th Circuit of the Supreme Court for the Northern District has deemed that "To be without a place in which to live is not in itself criminal," these encampments should be as treated like normal housing and the inhabitants should be treated like those live in actual housing.
They should be self-managed by residents of the encampments, so as to foster ownership in the endeavor. There should be an oversight committee made up of county, city, nonprofit agencies, law enforcement, community representation, and the unhoused themselves, to address progress and any issues that arise.
People living in encampments should enjoy the same freedoms allowed to those who are housed. They should have the freedom to come and go as they please without curfews. If they wish to have a guest that should be permitted with stipulations not that different from HUD housing – safety protocols. They should have a large tent to be used as a central hub for the encampments, where there can be classes for things such as higher education, employment education, basic living skills training, drug and alcohol services, meetings and classes like "Seeking Safety" and S.M.A.R.T. Recovery. There should be a communal labor system. And there should be total transparency towards the community with an in-kind system so that those in the community who wish to provide in-kind services know where their donations are going. There should be a mentor program where members of the community pair up with a resident to help move them towards reintegration into society. The encampments should use peers in all aspects of service – peer mental health specialists to assist with mental health challenge others to help with financial issues and legal issues and any other barriers to obtaining housing.
To successfully reintegrate the unhoused back in to society we must first address and treat them as equals in society. We cannot continue to treat them as they are different simply because they are unhoused. They must be afforded the same opportunities to rise to the occasion or fail as any other person. That is dignity and humanity at it’s best, and as such Sonoma County at it's best.