As with every story there is “the rest of the story.” The recent Valley Forum op-ed by the Sonoma Overnight Support board members (“Homeless Face Winter of Discontent,” Nov. 17) acknowledges homelessness is a problem. Now it’s time to consider how we, as a community, can fix this inhumane condition.
Homeless Action Sonoma, Inc. is a year old nonprofit started to end homelessness in our community, make a documentary and set an example. Lofty, yes. Doable, yes. But it needs the help of our community.
First item on our agenda was to educate – both the sheltered and unsheltered. We had our first speaking engagement scheduled earlier this year at the Vintage House senior center, then COVID let to its cancelation. We have Sunday barbecues for integrating these two parts of our community, but with COVID and social distancing we have had to limit numbers. It has been a slow process but lovely to see trust begin to build and people to see each other as people without labels.
Out of this has come many wonderful programs, mentoring for homeless, therapists working pro bono with homeless, a furniture refinishing business by homeless, a work co-op of homeless, and job offers.
In the town of Sonoma there are approximately 200 people without homes and 15-20 who are without shelter. There is no place to go, day or night, to get out of the weather. Many of the friends I have made in this community have jobs; jobs that give them hope. Think what it is like living in a tent, having to get up for work, get presentable without a bathroom, shower, no dry clothes, break down your tent and hide it so it won’t be confiscated. Then find a ride to work. There is no early morning food so you go without breakfast, you go without lunch (because you are working), you get off work too late to get food from the Spring Community Hall, so your hard-earned money goes to buying your one meal. Public showers are available for only a few hours on weekdays. Without help, it is easy to give up and spend the money on drugs or alcohol just to feel good for a few minutes. Homeless Action Sonoma, Inc. is providing help to keep the hope alive.
For people to have hope, they need their jobs, their families, their community. You ask a homeless person in Sonoma where they live and they will tell you their home is Sonoma. More than 95 percent of them were either born and raised here or have spent at least 20 years here. They are not transients looking for a good place to be homeless. Nowhere is a good place to be homeless.
Unless they are old and disabled or have given up, moving them away to a camp is not an option. They are human beings who are not ready to surrender living their lives to be cared for. They see that as warehousing them away from the sheltered. Yes, fed, washed and safe, but not living; and not home.
Homeless Action Sonoma has been studying many affordable, workable, community options for winter shelter. For less than $10,000 two large houses could be rented that would house 24/7, and provide services for all the totally unsheltered members of our community, with them helping pay the rent! Petaluma has been very successful with this model. We have found if the unhoused are treated with the respect that you would treat any new person you meet, they return the respect and act appropriately. There is no law stating homeless require supervision, and homelessness is not a crime.
There is a company starting up in Sonoma called QuickHaven (google it). They build lovely little homes which could be incorporated into a facility to end homelessness. They take an hour to assemble and all that is needed is land to put them on. They are local, cost $12,000 per unit, and can be packed up and moved quickly. They come wired for electricity but without water. Provide toilets and showers and – voila – winter shelter. It is an attractive product that you can pack and move and use again.
The First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon, under the amazing Rev. Morgan Schmidt, decided that homelessness without winter shelter was inhumane, so the community bought tents and placed them, social distancing from each other, in the church and in one day they had provided a safe winter shelter for 40 people, without spending large amounts of money. (You can Facebook Rev. Morgan Schmidt to see the other innovative things she is doing to help the homeless.) All they needed was a permit from their city council and community participation. Their Facebook post says: “Thank you all for making this happen. It takes a village.”
Homelessness is a condition that needs to be, and can be, eliminated for the benefit of the entire community. The cost of maintaining homelessness is exorbitant and unnecessary. We are a perfect community size to be a model. The ideal team to end homeless and hopelessness in Sonoma would be to join the years of experience that SOS has, with the innovative thinking of Homeless Action Sonoma, Inc. We can all then be proud of the Plaza heart that read: “Love is in the air.”
The Homeless Action Sonoma, Inc. Board of Directors is composed of Harry Boon, Barbara Lemme, Constance Bennett, Ted Nordquist, Lisa Leeb and Victor Chirkin.