In equal measure of compassion for the homeless and outrage that more isn’t being done to alleviate their plight, demonstrators marched though the streets of Santa Rosa on a soggy Sunday demanding that Gov. Jerry Brown declare a housing “state of emergency.”
They carried placards reading “Homeless not Useless,” “Veterans need Housing” and names of homeless people who have died, their bodies found under a bridge or in a drainage ditch.
The demonstrators, who numbered about 100, chanted a “couch is not a home,” and “a tent is not a home.”
Migdalia Vasquez-Howard, a disabled homeless woman who lives in her car with her dogs, was described as the “brainchild” behind Sunday’s march. She said the governor needs to know the homeless problem is getting worse and that housing is a basic human right.
“People are dying in the streets,” she said. “Emergency funds need to be released to house people.”
Government is spending money on projects that aren’t necessary, according to Vasquez-Howard, such as cutting down trees in Old Courthouse Square, where the 2-mile march from Roseland ended.
The demonstration was sponsored by Homeless Action, a grassroots group of church members, service providers and homeless individuals. Some speakers asserted that the treatment of the homeless is not only inhumane, but tantamount to “genocide.”
“We are the richest country on Earth. We have the most to offer. But we can’t figure out how to shelter and house our citizens,” said activist Eric Straatsma.
A January 2015 count identified 3,107 unhoused Sonoma County residents, although 1,037 were in homeless shelters the day of the census. An additional 2,070 had no shelter at all. Sonoma County’s population stands at roughly 500,000. Results from this year’s tally have not been released yet.
Some homeless advocates on Sunday called for rent control, or immediately making the former Sutter Community Hospital on Chanate Road a homeless shelter, with an eye to making it long-term affordable housing.
Organizers acknowledged a variety of factors can lead to homelessness, from physical and mental disabilities, substance abuse, debt and an inadequate minimum wage. But they also blamed a lack of housing for poor people and “outrageous rents,” which have risen in Sonoma County about 40 percent in four years, according to Real Answers, a Novato-based real estate research firm.
One homeless woman, Sandra Shotwell, 56, said she is just trying to survive but feels like “a fox in a hunt” trying to avoid police officers who have rousted her from places where she was napping, or admittedly trespassing to take a shower at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Participants weren’t fazed by the rain and steady drizzle during the march Sunday.
“Homeless are out in this rain all the time,” said Larry Harper of Sebastopol, a retired woodworker and volunteer at the Peace and Justice Center.
“The cost of housing in Sonoma County is prohibitive,” he said. “I have friends with jobs who can’t afford housing.”
Kristine Sullivan, who described herself as a homeless, unemployed single mother of five children aged 2 to 25, marched with her youngest child, Johnny, holding her hand.
She said Catholic Charities placed her into a motel after she became homeless in October and she has received other assistance, including food stamps and Social Security income.
Sullivan said she has gotten clean and sober, her credit score is good, but she can’t afford more than $600 or $700 in rent per month.
“I have all the support in the world and I still can’t find a place,” she said.
“No place will rent to me,” she continued. “I’d give everything — but my children — to get a home.”
“I don’t know what to do anymore. So we’re marching. Let’s hope this helps,” she said.
Frank Tracy, 80, of Santa Rosa, a veteran and retired landscaper who said he was homeless in the past and recently slept in his car, said the problem is not unsolvable. “We’re in the richest country in the world, we can help. We helped the banks all right,” he said.
Tom Van Camp, 64, of Windsor, a wine cellar supervisor, said he and his wife have been bringing firewood for the homeless.
“We need to bring more social awareness to it; get the word out to politicians. It’s only getting worse,” he said, adding that public money needs to be allocated for affordable housing.
Marilyn Shaver, 90, who has volunteered for two decades at the Living Room, a daytime shelter in Santa Rosa for homeless women and children, said she sees many older people who have lost housing because of sickness or losing a job.
She said the Living Room can steer them to assistance programs, but “they may be on a waiting list six years for housing.”
Some of those marching were part of a homeless encampment of about 20 tents set up on county property behind the Dollar General store in Roseland. Dubbed Camp Michela, it’s named for Michela Wooldridge, a homeless woman who was slain in 2012 just days before she was to receive a space at a crowded Santa Rosa shelter.
“I’m not a drug addict. I’m not a criminal,” said David McMinn, 61, a resident of the tent encampment who was marching Sunday. The former truck driver said “it’s hard to find a job at my age. It’s a little rough.”
He said he prefers the personal space the encampment provides compared to a cramped shelter, which he said can be like a jail.
He wants to see land made available so small “A” frame houses can be built for the homeless.
Celeste Austin, who works at the Living Room described the march Sunday as “a mark of compassion.”
She said both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are trying to address homelessness, but it’s necessary to bring even more attention to the issue, which is being felt across the state and country.
“It’s hard because there are so may challenges involving the homeless,” she said. But “we’re doing what we need to do on a rainy day.”