Homeless & Hungry


Christmas and COVID increase demand for help

There is an emerging thread of public opinion which holds that both Trumpian politics and the COVID-19 pandemic are parallel phenomena expressing different examples of the same human failure to address the urgent and foundational issues of our time.

We appear to be so polarized by petty politics and the fear of losing political advantage that we can’t come together even now, 10 months into a pandemic spiraling ever more rapidly out of control, to take obvious action, to make simple decisions to work together, and to spend enough money for a domestic Marshall plan that could soften or reverse the accelerating danger of job loss and small business failure.

More remarkable is the fact that nationally, regionally and locally we still find ourselves scrambling to provide food and medical security in the richest country on Earth, and to come up with inexpensive emergency housing for the homeless in Sonoma Valley while multimillion dollar homes fly off the market.

It almost makes your head spin.

We in Sonoma County, and particularly in Sonoma Valley, are an astoundingly generous and compassionate people. Thanks to the rapid initiative by philanthropists like Sonoma’s Simon and Kimberly Blattner, by the Comida Para Todos (Food For All) initiative spearheaded by El Verano School principal Maite Iturri and a cadre of school parents, the tireless work of volunteers for Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS) who are slinging hundreds of daily meals at the Sonoma Springs Community Hall, and the generosity of numerous Valley restaurants, the hungry have been and are being fed.

But the homeless are another problem entirely, one that continues to defy governmental and community resolution.

According to Kathy King, executive director of SOS, the Sonoma Valley homeless count, conducted by the Community Health Center, is 149. But, says King, based on the number of homeless people her group is feeding every day, “we think a lot of people aren’t being counted. I’d put the homeless count in the Valley at 200.”

This year, the overnight shelter previously provided by the Reverend Rob Goerzen at Sonoma Alliance Church on Watmaugh Road is gone because Goerzen has moved away. County officials have promised SOS. 10 homeless “huts” at the Los Guilicos shelter site on Pythian Road, but there is a seven-person waiting list for those shelters and so far only two SOS clients have been placed there.

Meanwhile, 10 private vehicles have been permitted to park overnight outside The Haven, the SOS facility adjacent to the Sonoma Police Station. But The Haven itself is no longer a usable, temporary shelter and there are no longer homeless people living there. The Haven does, however, provide a supervised shower and laundry service, utilizing a portable, ADA-compliant shower at the adjacent Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, from 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays. SOS provides each client a hygiene kit of soap, shampoo, conditioner, razor and two towels. Clean socks and underwear are also available if needed.

All other SOS services have been moved to Sonoma Springs Community Hall (formerly The Grange) where a nurse is available every morning, along with a case worker who helps direct clients to social service resources, dispenses taxi vouchers and provides whatever other guidance will help resolve food and housing security issues. And the Bon Marche thrift store also provides vouchers for clothing at the Community Hall.

Once a week, says King, La Luz Center sends volunteers to help do such things as file people’s taxes and register them to vote.

With the absence of shelter space, it’s not clear where the Valley’s homeless people are sleeping, but King says she was recently notified by a city official that one homeless man had been found sleeping overnight on the Plaza.

The COVID pandemic obviously impacts emergency shelter options, although there is, as yet, little or no evidence of infections passing among homeless people in Sonoma County.

King says that despite the manifest generosity of Valley residents in providing food and other resources, SOS still has an ongoing need for a number of basic items for people who are homeless. The list includes tarps, sleeping bags, hand and foot warmers, gloves, warm hats, men’s and women’s underwear, long underwear, thermal layers, waterproof phone pouches, foot powder, rain ponchos or jackets and gift cards for local fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box.

But, as much those items are needed and will be appreciated, King says her greatest need remains money. “People are being generous,” she says, “But we spent $23,000 in November, just for food. We’re feeding 145 people, that’s up 68 percent over last year in the number of people, and 147 percent in the amount of food served. We’re now feeding people on the edge, and I think we’re going to hit 250 meals a day.”                  

And, she adds a little wistfully, “Christmas is coming.”

SOS is located in Sonoma at 151 First Street West, next to the Sonoma Police Department. Call (707) 939-6777 for more information, or go to sonomaovernightsupport.org. The Sonoma Springs Community Hall is located at 18627 Sonoma Highway. Call (707) 935-1322, or go to springshall.org.

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