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It takes more than cooperation to tackle homelessness

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Sonoma County, its cities and towns plan to work together to address homelessness. This is a refreshing change that could yield results, but government kumbayas alone will not overcome the barriers to providing services to the homeless. To do this, we must innovate.

Homelessness is a regional problem. When counties, cities and towns each pursue their own strategies — or simply throw money at local nonprofit service providers — they can end up working at cross purposes. A low-income housing project in a community may not target the right population. Clamping down on camping in another community might just push people to the next town.

There is certainly something to be said for local control. No community will want to give up its power to make decisions for its residents. Down that road is the anger of voters when shelters are imposed on neighborhoods by powers beyond their control.

But local control does not exclude regional coordination. Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Petaluma are therefore developing a joint five-year strategy to reduce homelessness. North County towns including Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale entered into their own co-operative homelessness agreement earlier this year. Ideally the plans will be compatible if not merged so that each community operates from a shared playbook.

Change is necessary. The pandemic may have made it harder to help, but the past two years have also brought in a lot more money for the homeless. Sonoma County and Santa Rosa together have spent more than five times what they had before the pandemic to address homelessness. The state and federal governments have donated millions. Yet the number of people living on the streets has still increased.

Residents are understandably frustrated with the lack of progress. Homelessness remains highly visible, and crime and drug use associated with some camps continue to disrupt neighborhoods. This frustration leads to one of the biggest challenges local government faces in rolling out shelters and services: where to place them.

Almost invariably, when a site is identified for a sanctioned camp, shelter, or safe parking lot, neighbors object. Some neighbors say they don’t want the problems associated with bringing homeless people into their midst. Others point out, often with just justification, that their part of the city or county has already done its part and that another neighborhood should step in.

This opposition will not change just because local governments work together. Nor is the fact that some homeless residents resist entering shelters or seeking mental and behavioral health care providers.

Removing barriers and achieving success will require new approaches. The old approaches didn’t work. It’s a little disheartening to see that some new homelessness spending will go to consultants — $225,000 combined between Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma. Believe us skeptical that more consultants and more studies will bring something new.

This is a critical time to help homeless residents. As the pandemic becomes less of an immediate crisis, the public expects tangible results for the millions spent.

Local governments working mostly alone have not helped enough people transition into housing, have not provided enough accommodation options to reduce disruptive camping, and have not reached enough people with services for mental health and substance abuse disorders. Hopefully they will have more success working together.

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