Town Hall highlights Sebastopol’s efforts against homelessness
Wondering what Sebastopol has been doing to fight the scourge of homelessness, read on...
On Thursday, June 30, the city of Sebastopol held a town hall to share what the city’s been doing about the problem of homelessness. Hosted by councilmembers Una Glass and Diana Rich, who comprise the Sebastopol City Council’s Ad Hoc committee on the Unhoused, the town council highlighted the work of three organizations:
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West County Community Services, which runs Park Village, a very low-income trailer park on the eastern edge of town;
DEMA, which runs Elderberry Commons (formerly the Sebastopol Inn), a home for mostly elderly homeless individuals, medically at risk from COVID.
SAVS, the organization responsible for HorizonShine, the RV village across from the Lucky’s shopping center, which is where many of the homeless people living in the RVs that once lined Morris Street have moved to.
A video everyone in Sebastopol should see
The high point of the evening was a moving video featuring interviews with Sebastopol’s homeless people themselves, which you can see here as a part of the recorded town hall. (Go to the 41:18 minute mark to see the video.)
Created by Councilmember Rich (with help from Jim Corbett, Big Stripe Cat Productions and others), this is a video that everyone in Sebastopol should watch to get a better sense of who our homeless neighbors are.
“Working on the video was an amazing experience,” Rich said. “The interview subjects had incredible stories to share, and they shared them with complete openness and honesty. They were completely wiling to be vulnerable and not hold back, to share their feelings as well as their experiences, and to trust that their stories would be handled in a respectful and empowering way. To hear the raw, unfiltered truth about the challenges in their lives definitely affected me. Their stories were their own, but I felt so drawn into them, sitting and talking to them one on one. At the of the day, though, the entire process gave me renewed confidence in the human race. The people who shared their stories faced challenges that by rights should have destroyed them, yet they retained a love of life, and a tenacious focus on a better future. They were all resilient and resourceful, and driven to be better people, for themselves and for others. What an inspiring group!”
A small town tackles a big issue
Councilmember Glass kicked off the evening by trying to put Sebastopol’s homelessness problem in perspective.
“Homelessness is a nationwide problem. I know that people in Sebastopol may feel this is a huge problem here. But I invite you to go to San Francisco, Berkeley or Los Angeles. Our problems are rather tame compared to the problems in larger areas.”
While noting that it’s difficult for one small town to deal with a systemic problem like homelessness, Glass said the city has been working on the issue for the last five years. She said the town’s partnerships with regional organizations and with the county have allowed it to develop some innovative approaches to the problem.
“We can't solve the housing and the homeless issue by ourselves...We have to partner with people that are working on these problems regionally – and with the county. And that is what we are doing,” she said.
A Snapshot of Three Programs
Dannielle Danforth, the Director of Housing and Homeless Services for West County Community Services, spoke about their work with Park Village – a former mobile home park that was purchased by the city of Sebastopol as housing for very low-income residents. The city contracts with West County Community Services to run the site, which has a fulltime case worker, a part-time caseworker, and a fulltime resident manager on site.
When the city first bought the site, Park Village had eight vacant mobile home spaces with utilities; thirteen more units have been added to the site over the last five years. There are 76 residents at Park Village, some of whom live there permanently and others of whom live there temporarily on their way to other permanent housing.
Danforth said that since 2017, 34 formerly homeless people have been given shelter at Park Village and have moved on to other housing; another 40 homeless individuals have been helped by Park Village’s outreach workers. She noted that the outreach worker at Park Village had worked with 165 homeless individuals in Sebastopol and along the nearby Joe Rodota trail.
Danforth gave a shout out to Sebastopol’s churches for the support they’ve given to Park Village.
“I'm astounded by your church participation…Your churches are stepping up like nowhere else we work in. We have a list of donors that have donated over $500,000 to different projects at the park.”
DEMA AND ELDERBERRY COMMONS
Michelle Patino of Disaster Emergency Medical Assistance (DEMA) discussed the program at Elderberry Commons, formerly the Sebastopol Inn, which was turned into supportive housing for COVID-vulnerable homeless individuals in December 2020.
DEMA manages several homeless housing facilities in Sonoma County and Texas. The Elderberry Commons property is owned by the county of Sonoma, which purchased it from the owner of Sebastopol Inn in 2020, with the idea of turning it into housing for the homeless.
“There's been about 100 or so residents that have moved through [Elderberry Commons],” Patino said. She said 50 of those have moved into supportive housing or their own apartments, and 20 have found fulltime employment.
She described DEMA’s approach as “housing first, trauma-informed care, harm reduction and de-escalation.”
“It is very big for our company to make sure that every single staff member that works for us understands the population that we are working with, what is it that is going to best assist these individuals to reach permanent supportive housing or to permanent housing outside of a facility like this.”
Because of its older and medically vulnerable population, Elderberry Commons has a 24/7 outpatient clinic, staffed by RNs or EMTs. They also have a case manager that connects residents with primary care doctors. Patino said this approach has drastically reduced the number of emergency room visits that this particular population – older, medically fragile, and homeless - usually incurs.
As COVID winds down, the company is looking for a different source of funding. “Right now we've been currently contracting with counties and cities and other community partners for our services. As we move away from COVID response, we will move into more of a nonprofit model…but we're gonna continue to do what we do.”
SONOMA APPLIED VILLAGE SERVICES (SAVS) and HORIZON SHINE
Longtime homeless advocate Adrienne Lauby of SAVS discussed the newest homeless initiative in Sebastopol, the Horizon Shine RV Village, which opened in February 2022.
Horizon Shine has 18 RVs, most of which were once parked on Morris Street and 25 residents. The group was also able to supply RVs for two former denizens of Morris Street who’d been living in their cars.
“We are the new kids on the block,” Lauby said. “We feel like we're special because we believe in creative work, and we believe in keeping people involved in their own care. We have a management structure where the people who live there do some of the work of figuring out the rules and the amenities, what they want to see us put money into and what they want to see our staff work on.”
Horizon Shine have an annual budget of $600,000, which pays for three fulltime case managers, a fulltime village manager, 24-hour security and a special project manager who interfaces with the community and local businesses.
The village has portable showers and porta-potties.
“It's one of the things that people have been very most appreciative of. I mean, besides getting off the street, getting in a place where they're not harassed by the cops, where they're not being told to move. They've just been able to relax and have a good shower. And porta-potties - I can't overemphasize what a difference that makes for people.”
Horizon Shine also gets weekly visits from the West County Community Health Clinic, which provides both physical and mental health care.
Lauby said she appreciated all the work that that the city – particularly Rich and Glass - had done to make Horizon Shine happen.
“And I just want to give a shout out to our volunteers from Sebastopol,” she said. “We can't do it without you. You have been a tremendous help. And generally the city of Sebastopol, all of you who live there: we feel welcomed, we feel supported, and we feel very grateful.”
An at-large homeless outreach worker
The city of Sebastopol also has a full-time outreach worker, contracted through West County Community Services, who works with the people who are still living on the street.
“A lot of the people that she is interfacing with are people that are living rough,” Glass said. “They're people that aren't even living in their vehicles. They're camping out. When our police department or a citizen identifies somebody that's unhoused and seems like they are in need of some services, the outreach worker goes and finds that person and works to find the resources that they need to get on their feet. So she gets mental health workers, she gets housing vouchers, she gets health services, medical health services, job counseling, job training, and helps that person get in the county's Coordinated Entry Program which works to get people housing somewhere in the county.”
The bottom line
How much does the city spend on homeless services? According to Councilmember Rich, the city of Sebastopol spent a total of $159,000 on homeless services over the last year. This includes $87,000 to West County Community Services for the Park Village contract plus the $72,000 for the outreach worker. An additional $80,000 that went toward Horizon Shine was reimbursed by the county. $170,000 is earmarked for homeless services in draft budget for 2022-23.
Rich reiterated the council’s continued support for the town’s homeless programs. “I think that's very important to understand in terms of our future that we see the city supporting the continued services to the homeless so that these sites can continue to provide those services.”
In the video she created for the event, she put it this way:
“Homelessness is obviously a national problem; everyone's facing this issue. Here in Sebastopol, we have the advantage of a small town with a very compassionate heart and motivated decision makers on staff who are prepared to address the situation in the best way we can.”
“The key to the success of our efforts to address homelessness here in Sebastopol is, from my perspective, collaboration,” she told The Sebastopol Times. “The issues we face have affected all facets of our community - the unhoused of course, but also the community at large. To implement solutions we all had to work together, knowing that finding solutions would improve the quality of life for our entire community. That’s the most impressive “take away” for me - our ability and willingness, as a small town, to be open to solutions and to work together to achieve them.”
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The dialogue below brought up an important issue: how can I cover the city of Sebastopol as a journalist while simultaneously being paid by the city as a part-time contractor. I understand the concern. The answer goes like this: I was awarded the city’s Relaunch Sebastopol contract in January, and the newspaper I used to edit - Sonoma West Times and News - went belly up in May. Rather than see Sebastopol have no newspaper at all--and no coverage of city government--Dale Dougherty and I started The Sebastopol Times. Is it ideal that I’m paid by the city to market the town and local businesses to tourists, while at the same time writing about city government? No, of course, it’s not ideal. But no one else was stepping forward to spend hours a weeks covering the city’s news for free. I am not paid to do PR for the city council or government officials. The city is paying me for the very limited job of attracting tourists to town, supporting local businesses, and attracting new businesses to town. I am very careful to keep my two jobs separate. I use the news judgment I developed over years as a journalist to choose the stories I cover and the angle I take. All I can do is promise to do my best to cover the city honestly and thoroughly and to pull no punches.
I apologize for the tone I took in exchange below - I have removed my remarks. Honestly, the insulting tone of several of the comments got my goat, but I shouldn’t have engaged.
Sadly, the town hall was a propaganda exercise and had nothing to do with the residents and business owners in Sebastopol. No businesses spoke about the impact of these programs on their businesses. Usually, the town, not outside services providers, participate in a town hall. Key points which were omitted from this shameless PR plug for these non-profits are the costs to taxpayers. Council Member Rich, was unaware of the $3,451,100.63 tax funded budget for the Sebastopol Inn, even though she is one of the members on the Committee for the Unhoused.
Our tax dollars fund over $680,000 for the SAVS RV Park on Gravenstein Highway.
The total annual spend on transients in Sebastopol is over $4,100,000 in taxpayer money. This services around 65 individuals. This is the money we pay when we contribute to our state and federal taxes.
The numbers for the Sebastopol Inn were obtained through a public records request dated March 22, 2022. The Sonoma County Community Development Commission was the responding agency.
The CDC Breakdown for Sebastopol Inn
Currently Council wants more money when what is the equivalent of 1/3 of Sebastopol's entire budget is being spent on the 45 residents of the Sebastopol Inn. The residents of the SAVS Village are receiving over $680,000 of public tax money to live rent and utility free for 10 months. That comes out to around $37,777 per resident in the 10 month period. Will residents be self-sufficient by the end of the contract?
In addition, the Committee on the Unhoused never gave a total amount for transient services for the last 5 years, even thought I've requested it numerous times: Public Works, Outside Attorneys, Port-0-Potties, Police Service, Fire Services, Fires, Damage to the Community Center, Park Village Costs, Staff Costs, etc. Citizens have spent considerably more than $150K. The damage caused by transients to the community center and the costs of clean up by public works exceeds that figure.
In addition, we have several parts of our town devoted to transient housing. Park Village, which is supposed to be a public park, and the Sebastopol Inn, which used to generate sales tax, Transient Occupancy Tax and tourist dollars.
Council made a grave financial error for the Citizens of Sebastopol when they did not protest the County's conversion of the Sebastopol Inn to transient housing. Barbie Robinson, who engineered this profit windfall for the owners who sold the Inn (the Inn received a sale price at 40% of above appraised value), now works and lives in Texas. The residents and business community are left with the results.
Yet, citizens will not hear this from Rich and Glass because they are looking to build their careers through their sacrificing our Sebastopol's roads, parks and businesses. They want the "I solved homelessness" on their resumes. It is a disservice to all involved to act as if Rich and Glass presented any information that is relevant to a resident who wants their street paved and their fire department funded or a business owner who is trying to run a small business in a town that gives more time and money to transients than local employers.
If you're going to represent this blog as a source for information, please get all your facts before writing. If you're a PR arm for Sebastopol City Council, then let readers know so they can take your posts with a grain of salt.