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Forum highlights homelessness in Sonoma County (w/video)

  • Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, right, speaks about her belief in offering aid to the homeless during Lost in Paradise: A Forum on Homelessness in Sonoma County at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa on Wednesday night. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

As the leader of a homeless services center – and former homeless drug user – Mike Johnson knows it's crucial to have help available when someone wants to get off the streets.

But when a homeless person in Sonoma County says “I'm ready,” those services often aren't there. There aren't enough emergency beds, temporary living spaces or permanent affordable housing for the estimated 4,300 homeless residents.

“The bottleneck is both at the front end and at the back end,” said Johnson, the executive director of the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, in Petaluma.

Lost In Paradise: A Forum On Homelessness

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Johnson was among several community leaders to participate in a panel discussion Wednesday night on the causes and impacts of homelessness in Sonoma County in a forum presented by The Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine.

The “Shine A Light” discussion, before a packed house at the Glaser Center in downtown Santa Rosa, is the first of an occasional series of forums on community issues, Press Democrat Executive Editor Catherine Barnett said.

The forum was prompted by an illuminating Sonoma Magazine article, written by Press Democrat Staff Writer Jeremy Hay, that chronicled the lives of several young people living on the streets of Santa Rosa.

The experts discussed difficulties assisting the estimated 10,000 people who are homeless at some point in a given year in Sonoma County. A one-day census of the homeless population counted 4,280 homeless residents, 1,128 of whom were under age 24 and 277 under age 18.

The waiting list for housing at the COTS Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma is eight weeks, Johnson said.

The answer to a person in urgent need is: “Stand in line for two months. Sorry. We can't help you for two months,” he said.

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