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Sonoma's Haven shelter provides an overnight home for the valley's homeless


Fran Blaye recalls the four simple words that offered hope and saved her from another night of sleeping in her minivan.

“You have a bed.”

Blaye, 63, was in a skilled nursing facility recovering from hip replacement surgery when Jeff Severson, the manager of Sonoma’s only homeless shelter, stopped by to personally deliver the good news.

“It was lovely,” said Blaye, grateful for the warm bed, nutritious food and welcome compassion provided by Sonoma Overnight Support, a nonprofit organization that operates meal programs for the hungry and runs The Haven, a 10-bed shelter located a few blocks north of the Sonoma Plaza.

“Oh my god, it was such a relief, and it actually did motivate me to work harder and get better,” said Blaye, a Sonoma Valley resident for nearly 20 years.

The cozy three-bedroom, two-bathroom manufactured home provides shelter for up to six months, with 22 families and 35 individuals currently on the wait list, many of them elderly.

Blaye is among an estimated 200 to 300 people in Sonoma Valley who are homeless, numbers gathered during an annual count around encampments throughout the area. SOS officials believe the numbers are even higher, based on the people who utilize their drop-in services at The Haven.

“I talk to people who can’t believe there are homeless in Sonoma Valley,” said Kathy King, 67, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Part of our effort is to make people aware.”

Many live “in the hills, under the bridges, couch surfing or sleeping in their cars,” she said. “They don’t all want to be at the shelter.”

Many, like Blaye, become homeless after losing their jobs. Others can’t afford rent increases and are unable to find affordable housing or come up with deposits of first and last months’ rent when circumstances force them to move.

A smaller percentage suffer from drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness.

“And then there’s the shortage of housing,” said Cindy Vrooman, 67, president of the SOS board of directors.

Blaye lost her double-wide mobile home to foreclosure after the local architectural firm she worked for as a secretary was forced to downsize during the economic downturn. After staying here and there for a few weeks with friends and family, Blaye ended up sleeping in her minivan.

She arrived at The Haven in late June and hopes to stretch her monthly $1,225 Social Security income by sharing a rental with a woman also hoping to transition from the shelter.

Debbie and Dan Kahn and their 16-year-old son also hope to find a place of their own. They arrived at The Haven in April, defeated after a series of personal setbacks that landed them without a home.

The longtime Petaluma residents first endured a reduction of hours — and pay — at Debbie’s clerical job with the County of Marin. Debbie, 45, later suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with life-threatening heart disease and an inoperable blood clot in her heart. She is now on permanent disability, unable to work.

Dan, 46, had been a stay-at-home dad and, with a 15-year gap in his resume, was unable to find employment. The family rented space for a year at a friend’s home in Redding where, they discovered, rentals are cheaper but jobs are fewer.

“We considered Sonoma County our home, and we thought if we had to be homeless somewhere, we may as well be homeless here,” Debbie Kahn said.

With encouragement from staff at The Haven, Dan Kahn attended a culinary program, found a full-time job at a nearby café and is attending Santa Rosa Junior College. Debbie Kahn’s health has stabilized, and the family is cautiously optimistic about their future.

They credit SOS with providing their family with security, shelter and both practical and emotional support at a critical time in their lives.

“They’re there. You need to do the footwork, but they encourage you. It gives you more self-esteem,” Dan Kahn said. “You come in feeling just so low.”

To assist people like Blaye and the Kahns, SOS relies on fundraising and a dozen community partnerships to cover 70 percent of the annual operating budget of $263,000. Remaining funding comes from the county and the City of Sonoma.

Simply raising awareness about homelessness in the historic Wine Country tourist town is challenging in itself.

“It’s a painful thing to acknowledge that in your community — and it’s a lovely community — that at night when we’re pouring our wine, there are people who are sleeping outdoors,” Vrooman said. “They have no place to go.”

Established in the late 1990s by various church and synagogue volunteers concerned about homelessness and hunger in Sonoma Valley, SOS became a nonprofit in 2003 and provided overnight shelter in local motels, churches and private locations. In 2007, it opened The Haven, last year providing shelter to 67 low-income men, women and families.

“We’ve expanded because of the need,” King said.

As the need continues to grow, every effort is made to find housing and return people to self-sufficiency. SOS has two beds available for emergencies and also provides motel vouchers.

A $15,000 grant from the philanthropic Impact100 Sonoma helped SOS expand services last year to include an outreach drop-in program at The Haven, where nonresident homeless can take showers, do laundry, use a computer or telephone, eat a meal, find counseling and referrals, get a bus pass, use an address to receive mail and escape inclement weather. More than 340 people dropped in last year, utilizing 4,911 different services.

By collaborating with FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping), SOS also provides a severe weather shelter program with a large, heated tent at The Haven, and emergency shelter and food at local churches and congregations.

King and Vrooman said some 50 core volunteers from the long-established Brown Baggers program provide food and compassion for SOS clients as well as the many low-income seniors, families and veterans who stretch their fixed incomes by dining at two weekly soup kitchens.

Under the guidance of longtime volunteer and SOS board member Elizabeth Kemp, the Brown Baggers program teamed up with SOS in 2005 to provide hundreds of burrito and sandwich lunches each week that are dropped off to the hungry across Sonoma Valley.

The agency’s next goal is to add supportive housing for women and children, possibly starting with even a few designated motel rooms.

Since its start with concerned citizens like the late Adele Harrison, for whom a local middle school is named, SOS has always kept the individual person in mind.

Editorial: Homeless, housing a test for city leadership



“The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” – Pearl Buck


The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday declared a “homeless emergency” as an opening salvo in what looks to be a concerted effort on behalf of the city to find solutions to assist the town’s nearly 1,900 homeless. Additionally, city leaders declared a “shelter crisis,” to ease health zoning restrictions at potential new shelter sites; ruled that homeless numbers constituted a local emergency, easing shelter zoning restrictions on private property such as churches; and, lastly, planned to seek a state-of-emergency declaration from Gov. Brown in an effort to draw state funding to combat the problem.

While Santa Rosa councilmembers acknowledged these moves were by no means solutions to homelessness, they agreed it was a place to start.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Councilmember Tom Schwedhelm.

That move by our neighbors to the northwest begs the question to Somonans: Do we have our hands on deck? Any hands on deck? Do we even have a deck?

The questions arise as the results of the January 2016 “point in time” homeless survey were released earlier this month. That report, which conducted a single-day homeless headcount last Jan. 29, found 21 homeless in Sonoma. By definition, a single-day headcount will always underreport the real numbers. One can’t possibly expect to see every homeless person in a region in a single day – most homeless people make an effort to stay out of sight. Many are in cars. Some are even at day jobs. Still, that’s at least a floor of 21 – and perhaps a ceiling double that amount – of homeless in Sonoma. And while Santa Rosa city officials rally residents toward a community effort to find safe harbor for its most needy, Sonoma’s hemming and hawing about the dangers of helping five homeless people/families.

Uh huh, five.

In June, the City Council was presented with a proposal from the Sonoma Overnight Support to allocate five safe parking spaces to car-dwelling homeless persons/families after dark. The proposed parking spaces, located in the First Street West parking lot in front of the SOS shelter, The Haven, would be monitored by Haven staff, with further oversight by Catholic Charities and it wouldn’t cost the city a dime. Cars would only be admitted after 9 pm, avoiding overlap with day use at the nearby baseball fields, and the program would begin on a pilot basis; after the pilot period is over, the city could yank the program if it was creating problems. The Council would have to amend its no-camping ordinance, which would be easy to do.

Somewhat surprising, and certainly troubling, were the results of an online poll the Index-Tribune conducted in July to gauge support for the safe-parking program in which 53 percent of respondents suggested the local vehicular homeless should look elsewhere for assistance.

The City Council has shown muted enthusiasm, as well. After visiting and revisiting the matter, the council has called for more information before coming to a decision. Well, all the information they’ll ever need they’d get in a three-month-long pilot program like the one SOS is suggesting. Councilmembers Rachel Hundley and Gary Edwards have voiced some openness to the proposal; all have expressed sympathies as to the plights of the dispossessed. None on the council has responded with a firm “no” to safe parking; the Council plans to revisit the proposal in September.

The question was asked as to whether such a program fits into SOS’s core mission. But, as SOS spokespeople have said at the council meetings, it is their mission to “help the homeless and hungry in Sonoma Valley.” It’s what their website clearly states. And they shouldn’t be the only ones with such a mission.

Caution is always a good place from which governance should start. Councilmembers can’t be faulted there. But caution about governing is one thing; fear of it is another. Progress requires risk; risk requires leadership. There’s no risk in deciding whether or not to allow dogs on a hiking trail; there’s no leadership in saying one likes or despises a leaf blower.

Sonoma is a mostly beautiful town with mostly beautiful people. We sip aperitifs, nibble sliders, talk vintages. It’s all scrubbed clean, and wholesomely pretty. The wine’s good, too.

But homelessness isn’t those things. It’s never pretty and is often ugly. It’s dirty. Jaundice and ripe. Unwashed, desperate, frightened and hungry.

Homelessness is many things we don’t want Sonoma to be, but – at The Haven, in hillside encampments, living in cars – is.

Taking action on that involves risk; not being stymied by that risk takes leadership.

On Monday, Aug. 15 the Council and the Planning Commission will meet in their second joint-session to discuss ways to address Sonoma’s increasing need for affordable housing. We hope city officials eventually emerge from these meetings with a vision for their housing goals and a willingness to take action – before other families on the brink of being priced out of an apartment join the ranks of The Haven clientele.

Homeless are our neighbors

Sonoma Index-Tribune - August 18, 2016

EDITOR: On behalf of Sonoma Overnight Support and the homeless people we serve, I want to thank editor Jason Walsh for shining the light on the issue of homelessness here in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley.

His Aug. 12 editorial (“Homeless, Housing a Test for City Leadership”) addresses the complex issue of homelessness in our community and the inaction of some Sonoma City Council members to support a proposed solution – safe parking.

Surely, the citizens of Sonoma deserve better from its leadership to help those in need who live here, even if they don’t have a roof over their heads.

We at Sonoma Overnight Support have been serving the homeless for 10 years. The recent homeless count showed that 20 percent of those who are homeless live in their cars. This is an increase of 9 percent since 2015.

The Haven, the small SOS 10-bed shelter, is full, 26 adults are on the waiting list in addition to the 15 we know by name who are living in their cars. They want to be near their jobs or near their families.

According to the census, 64 percent of those who are homeless in our community have lived in Sonoma for 10 years or more. They are our neighbors.

We have proposed to the City Council a pilot project of using five parking slots in front of the Haven for overnight parking for some of the car dwellers. SOS would provide them a safe place for the night, a portable bathroom, food and monitoring – all at no cost to the City.

Why the City Council will not grant approval of this three-month pilot project is beyond my comprehension. This program has been working successfully for over two years in Santa Rosa in eight locations. As Mr. Walsh quoted at the beginning of his editorial, “The test of a civilization is the way that is cares for its helpless members.” Isn’t it time for Sonoma City Council to show empathy and compassion and vote yes to SOS’s safe parking program?

Kathy King

Executive Director Sonoma Overnight Support

Volunteers work on sheltering homeless Sonomans

DFRANCES | February 11, 2014


In Sonoma, the homeless aren’t as visible as in other cities.  Seldom can someone be found panhandling in front of local grocery stores or on the Plaza square. We almost never see people sleeping on sidewalks, huddled in doorways.


But tucked on side streets, under bridges, camped out in parking lots or crammed with seven others in a tiny apartment, the homeless population is growing in Sonoma, just as it is in the rest of the country.


Elizabeth Kemp, a local Sonoma Overnight Shelter volunteer and one of the first members of the free, warm-burrito-providing Brown Baggers, has been working to help Sonoma’s homeless for more than 30 years. In the last 10 years, she says, the homeless population in the Valley has increased with the recession and an increasingly disproportionate low-wage to high-living-cost ratio. Kemp helps with Sonoma County’s annual homeless count, and in the last year counted more than 200 homeless people – though she says accurate homeless numbers are difficult to determine. But, at least 200 homeless people live in the Valley permanently. Most live here and work here, she says.


Kemp explains that the term “homeless” is broad and an overgeneralization, citing people who live on a different friend’s couch each week, or out of their cars, as technically homeless but are more accurately defined as “inadequately sheltered.” The “unsheltered” people, on the other hand, camp out in empty fields, on less travelled streets or under bridges.


But where do these unsheltered homeless go when it’s too cold or too wet to safely live outside?  “Rain drives them under the bridges at places like Maxwell Park or St. Leo’s (Catholic Church),” Kemp says.


After a string of homeless deaths during bitter Bay Area winter weather, Kemp and longtime FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping) volunteers Sandra and Alan Piotter, along with 20 other compassionate Sonomans, are trying to answer this emergency housing question with the creation of the Sonoma Severe Weather Shelter.


FISH and SOS, along with members of the faith community and several churches, teamed up to provide a warm, safe, dry place for homeless to sleep when temperatures dip to 32 degrees, or below 40 degrees while rainy. In January, 25 volunteers met to discuss creating a rotating shelter like other places in the country have Sandra said, noting inspiration from Washington County, Ore.


Kemp and Sandra say the number of homeless people – or people on the verge of homelessness – is on the rise in Sonoma. “There used to be inexpensive places people could live,” Kemp said, “but now even someone working full-time on minimum wage can’t afford to rent, or can’t find a place to rent.”


“The recession dropped people to a hard place,” shelter co-organizer and volunteer Bill Hutchinson explained. “The community needs to look at its own economic engine, the living wage especially. We are aware of the need for an increase (in the minimum wage).”


The local homeless population varies from single men and women who struggle with meth addictions or alcoholism, to migrant workers who are so underpaid they can’t afford housing, to families with working parents who must choose whether to pay rent or feed their children every day. “For every homeless person,” Kemp says, “there’s a story, and a lot of them live rough.”

Ninety percent of the homeless she has worked with, Kemp says, suffer from some sort of mental illness. “It’s really sad to see someone deteriorate,” she says, adding she would like to see the city and the county get more involved in helping local homeless and the untreated mentally ill.


Kemp believes it is important to help these homeless, regardless of their lifestyle choices, for no other reason than the simple fact that they are human. “Would you have them die?” she asks, as an alternative to feeding and sheltering the hungry and cold because they have a drug addiction or they have an untreated mental illness. “We are all human beings and we have no idea what started them off on that road.”


And as to the notion that there isn’t homelessness in the Valley because it can’t be easily seen, Alan says “I think we are perceptive enough to know that Sonoma is not so different from other places, and part of this is working on awareness so that (the community) knows homeless are here.”


In 1972, Sandra Piotter recalls, FISH put homeless people – many were just passing through – in hotels. In the 1980s, makeshift emergency shelters were created at Paul’s Resort in El Verano or in a rented apartment. With the gentrification of Boyes Hot Springs and little community interest in building affordable housing communities, Kemp says it’s become increasingly difficult to shelter homeless people.


The Severe Weather Shelter services will begin Sunday, Feb. 16, with the program officially opening when weather conditions apply. The Brown Baggers will provide two hot meals – dinner upon arrival at the shelter and breakfast with coffee in the morning.


So far, the group has purchased 10 blow-up camping mats with money from volunteers and money donated from some area churches. It has also received a donation of 10 backpacks. “Everything has fallen into place really well,” Sandra says, adding the group is looking for a place to wash laundry after each shelter night.


Sandra only expects a few homeless people to attend the shelter at first, but once trust builds in the community, she and her colleagues are hopeful that this will become a sustainable model for sheltering homeless in the worst of weather conditions in coming years. Alan and Hutchinson recently met with Sonoma County 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin to discuss county involvement in the program and to seek advice on finding a more permanent shelter location.


Shelter hours are 6:30 pm to 6:30 am the following morning. People who are interested in shelter services fill out a homeless management information survey at SOS and are told where to meet (either at La Luz Center or Sonoma Valley Regional Library) and when to get on a shuttle that will take them to whichever church is being used as the shelter. People hoping to use the shelter will be screened before going to the shelter and again upon arrival, and must agree to certain behaviors – including no drugs or alcohol, and no weapons.

The group has more than a dozen volunteers on call to run the shelter, with two pairs of volunteers monitoring the facility in two shifts each night it is open, and with churches designating days they can have the shelter onsite.


The shelter group needs volunteers to help with set up, shelter hosts, transportation and meal preparation.


The group is also looking to fill a few volunteer positions in particular, including someone to escort shelter attendees from the library or La Luz in the shuttle to the shelter and someone to help with the homeless survey at the SOS Haven. So far, the group has had two orientations for volunteers. It will continue to train volunteers throughout the year with more details to come.


The severe weather shelter also welcomes funding and donations in kind. Donations can be sent to FISH, P.O. Box 507, with reference to Severe Weather Shelter, or online via the FISH PayPal link at


“A community that cares about everyone in it is a rich community,” Alan said.


For more information about the shelter, volunteering or donating, email or call 996-0111 and reference Sonoma Severe Weather Shelter.

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