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In a far-ranging conversation about the homeless in Sonoma County, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore made several things clear: it’s time for action, everyone will be a part of bearing the burden, the time for “not in my backyard” mentality has passed and that if these things cost him an election, it’s a price he’s willing to pay.

The conversation started following the announcement that the county would be renting out the Holiday Inn in Windsor to use as a temporary non-congregate site (NCS) for housing homeless who are in high-risk categories for COVID, primarily those 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions.

The majority of the new residents at the hotel will be moved from a similar site, Alliance Redwoods, in west county, where they’ve been for some time.

But, it’s clear that this action is only part of a wider vision Gore has for dealing with the increasing challenges of the shelterless population in the county, and he’s tired of hearing the same old excuses.

“We have made a commitment as a board to not just lead this through the political conversation of ‘not in my backyard or district,’ but more of staff telling us what we need so we all bear the burden together of what this is,” he said. “Of course, people are concerned, I’m concerned. But, the reality is that the only thing I’m more concerned about is doing nothing and letting the current situation dictate our reality going forward.”

Everyone needs to step up

Gore said the antipathy and NIMBYism that has underpinned much of the conversation needs to stop, because the time has passed and the law is clear that is no longer an excuse.

“When looking at (sites before placing a shelter camp at) Los Guillicos, no matter where we looked or what sites were identified, everybody had too many concerns to move on them,” he said. “There was opposition by neighbors or supervisors. If the location was rural, it was too far from services, if it was downtown, it was too close to commerce, if it was in a neighborhood, it was too close to families.”

He pointed out how adamant fellow supervisor Susan Gorin was about Los Guillicos not being put in her district, though he said she has since come around as there have been very few issues with the residents. But, he pointed out that every supervisor should be expected to take on a piece of the puzzle to share the burden equally.

He also pointed to the case of Vannucci v. Sonoma County, which has placed the county under federal injunction that states the county cannot move people from public land without having another opportunity for them.

“Before I got elected the two biggest ‘shelters’ were the river and the SMART train. SMART came through and busted it all up, the river is now regulated much more heavily because of environmental degradation,” he said. “But, from 40 years of failed policies, of playing whack-a-mole, things have come to a head and now we have a court injunction and are required to take action.”

He feels strongly that community problems need to be solved in the community.

“What I have to tell the community is that right now the solutions for our community homeless problems have to be in our community,” he said. “I’m not asking for people’s patience or hope, I’m asking for their accountability … honestly I know people are concerned that we have encampments in the airport area, the Mark West Creek drainage, in Cloverdale under the First Street Bridge, where we’ve had two fires and a stabbing, or in Healdsburg where we have 50 individuals staying on the river where the private landowner is looking to move them off his land. We live in imperfect times, and we have to lean in.

“What I have to take accountability for is giving staff authority to negotiate these contracts, and knowing we have to share this burden between districts … I’m just a person that says, ‘I don’t know how to solve homelessness but I do believe we have achieved worse.’ When people say what if it gets worse, we’ve already achieved that. (The Windsor facility) is over 65 and over people with medical needs. These are the most vulnerable people in our community, and I can’t be a part of saying no at the expense of lives,” he concluded.

And Gore hopes residents will share his outlook.

“For residents throughout the county, we need you to lean in with us on solutions to this problem,” Gore said. “We cannot pack people in to buses and ship people out of the county, and the jail is already 40% homeless.

“For everybody who says, ‘not here,’ then where? And don’t be general,” he continued. “The days are gone of saying ‘I support affordable housing, but not here or shelters, but not here.’ I have never seen a proposal for affordable housing or homeless solutions that have been supported, they’ve all been opposed … the only way to fix problems is to embrace the mess. I don’t ask for just their whimsical hope or their never-ending patience.”

The mental health piece

Gore also thinks it’s important to be addressing issues that may lead a person into homelessness, and without question, one of the biggest is mental illness. He said the county will be adding an entire behavioral health unit at the jail to start treating and addressing patients there, but he also feels a lot of work needs to be done on the issues of conservatorship, that is having someone declared unable to care for themselves and being taken into care to make sure they are getting treatment and medication as well as shelter.

He spoke about his own challenges trying to get assistance or conservatorship for a local who often takes shelter on his road and who shows clear mental illness, but despite his advocacy, and over 50 5150 holds in recent years, he still doesn’t qualify as disabled enough to be taken into conservatorship.

Part of the conversation is Laura's Law, a California state law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment. To qualify for the program, the person must have a serious mental illness plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jailings or acts, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior towards self or others. 

However, counties can opt-out of Laura’s Law and most, including Sonoma County, do because of the significant costs associated with the program. Gore wants to have a public conversation about the law and possibly applying some of the newly-approved Measure O funds to help offset the costs of taking individuals into supervised care.

“We’re already going to be adding 16 mental health beds at Los Guillicos from Measure O funds,” Gore said, adding there may be state and other funding for these costs, but all opportunities must be pursued.

Ultimately, Gore said he knows these views may not be popular with his constituents, though he expressed appreciation that a number of social media comments have been supportive of plans like the NCS in the hotel in Windsor, something he says would rarely have happened previously. But, he feels it’s a matter of conscience and doing what is right.

“I’m going to lean in, and ask everyone to lean in and when it comes to reelection, if it’s a problem, it’s a problem,” he said. “It’s about doing what is right.”

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