From Sonoma Index-Tribune, December 1, 2020

Valley Forum: Lessening homelessness requires action

 

HOMELESS ACTION SONOMA, BOARD OF DIRECTORS

To read about Homeless Action Sonoma, Inc. and to offer support please check here.

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.

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From Sonoma Index-Tribune, November 27, 2019

Valley Forum: Homelessness is all of our problem

Rev. Curran Reichert is pastor of the First Congregational Church Sonoma and president of the SOS board of directors.

Why has homelessness become such a hot-button issue in Sonoma and whose job is it to fix it?

What is so vexing about this issue is that in most cases homelessness is not a direct result of something you personally did or didn’t do. Homelessness and its attendant consequences are symptomatic of larger issues at play. A society that can accept, or at the very least, tolerate elders, children, disabled and addicted people living in the streets, under bridges and in their cars is a society that has lost its moral compass.

Two of the many myths about people who are homeless are either that they don’t want to work, or that they can’t hold a job because there is something wrong with them. That is simply not the case. The majority of homeless people in Sonoma Valley are employed, often with multiple low paying jobs that do not afford access to even the most modest accommodation in our overly inflated housing market.

People who live without permanent shelter are in reality doing the very best they can to survive. Yet we persist in blaming them for their situation, and with harsh judgement we punish them accordingly, saying implicitly or explicitly you can’t sleep here, park here, smoke, drink, eat or relieve yourself here because it is making us uncomfortable.

Friends of Sonoma Valley, homelessness should make us uncomfortable. It should make us so uncomfortable that we insist on directing abundant civic and private resources toward creating lasting and meaningful solutions. If it makes us uncomfortable enough, we might try harder to find a location for a year-round, low-barrier shelter with wrap around mental health and medical services. Our Valley does not currently have such a place and we need one desperately.

If it makes us uncomfortable enough, perhaps we will join with others to advocate for rent stabilization and for low-income housing availability until there are enough affordable spaces for everyone to live comfortably and safely. If homelessness bothers us enough maybe it will motivate us to fight for tenants’ rights so that those who are precariously housed do not lose their shelter and end up trying to survive on the streets.

“...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. “ ~ Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey

Homelessness isn’t a problem that any one group, be it civic or religious, can fix alone. Nor is it acceptable for us to excuse ourselves from our responsibility to act simply because the issue is complex and overwhelming. It does no good for people to point fingers and accuse others of not pulling their weight, nor does it do any good to insist that Sonoma Overnight Support and its Haven homeless shelter be moved out of town so that people don’t have to see it. Because, friends, see it we must! We must look homelessness square in the face and recognize the humanity behind the suffering. While we may not be personally or directly responsible for the problem of homelessness, resolving the issue in any meaningful way is going to take serious concerted effort.

“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members — the last, the least, the littlest.” ~Cardinal Roger Mahony, “Creating a Culture of Life”

While throughout our country and certainly in this region organized religion may be on the decline, it remains true that religious communities have long been the go-to for feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. We owe a debt of gratitude to the faithful communities who do this good work day in and day out. It is however naive and dangerous to believe that the burden of resolving homelessness is the responsibility of religious groups alone. We cannot in one breath strip away the societal value and credibility of religious institutions and in the next breath demand that they be responsible for bearing the burdens of our society’s most intractable problems.

Together, we all own what is right with this world as well as what is wrong with it. In this season of gratitude, it is good to celebrate all there is to be thankful for. But when the leftovers are put away, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Friends, we are all in this together. We are a loving community and we share a bedrock belief that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Sonomans are resilient and brave. Let there be no doubt that we are capable of making headway in alleviating the misery of homelessness, and let us do so in a way that reflects the best of who we are as a community.