Sonoma County Prepares for Homeless Services Overhaul

Sonoma County officials are gearing up for a complete revamping of homeless services which they say will benefit those most in need.

Currently, the county’s shelters operate on a first-come, first-served basis, catering to individuals who arrive first in line. While it may seem fair, critics of the system say it doesn’t properly account for individual risk factors and, as a result, the most dire cases often go without assistance.

“We’re prioritizing people who can navigate our bureaucratic system, as opposed to people with the most need,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, the county’s homeless coordinator. “People are dying because of it.”

Under the new program, the most indigent will be prioritized based on a ranking system that considers factors like medical issues and the length of time an individual has been on the streets. A team of outreach workers, led by a nonprofit organization, will decide who is admitted to the shelters after proper risk assessment. Several organizations are currently vying for the $311,000 contract which is scheduled to be approved by the Board of Supervisors in November. The Board approved funding for the homeless outreach team earlier this summer, while much of the funding will also come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The overhaul has received support from most homeless service providers, but it is not without its detractors. Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, worries that the new approach could end up leaving too many desperate people behind.

“For people who are homeless for the first time, they might not be the most vulnerable but they still need some sort of short-term intervention so they don’t end up long-term homeless,” Holmes said.

There were an estimated 4,280 homeless people living in Sonoma County last year, 45% of whom suffer from some type of medical ailment. The average wait time for a shelter can range anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months. A countywide survey conducted in May found that 112 families and 116 individuals were on emergency shelter waiting lists.

Read more about the overhaul of Sonoma County homeless services here