As statewide homeless population numbers come in that have been collected by point-in-time counts, a pattern has emerged showing that COVID-19 has not had as big an effect on people experiencing homelessness as some had expected.

This was especially true in Sonoma County, which released its point-in-time numbers on Monday.

Point-in-time is just that, a count of the number of homeless people living in a given region at one point in time. For Sonoma County in 2022, that was Feb. 25.

According to the county, homelessness increased 5 percent overall from the last count in 2020, with 2,893 people experiencing some form of homelessness.

Still, Sonoma County officials say that homelessness is down rather dramatically over a 10-year period. In 2011, the county counted 4,539 unsheltered people. In 2020, that number was 2,745.

The 5 percent increase since 2020 was “smaller than early predictions were suggesting,” a county spokesperson said. The county points to the Project Homekey housing initiative, safe parking, interim housing initiatives, vouchers and rental assistance as contributing to the lower-than-expected numbers.

Allocating millions to fight homelessness

This year, Sonoma County has indeed increased its push towards supportive housing. Last week, the Board of Supervisors approved $4.1 million for affordable housing initiatives, most of which are to be geared toward homelessness.

In March, the supervisors earmarked $1.5 million for two housing initiatives that would convert the former L&M Motel in Healdsburg and the former Best Value Inn in Petaluma to permanent supportive housing for “chronically homeless” individuals.

The state of California gave the county $7 million for the Healdsburg site and $15.3 million for the Petaluma site through its Project Homekey initiative, a housing-first model that posits that above all, people experiencing chronic homelessness, addiction or mental illness need the stability of a roof over their head and wrap-around services before they can fully tackle their challenges.

Such services have been available to adults with developmental disabilities for decades but California had never followed suit with similar supports for people with mental illness.

Comprehensive supports for people with developmental disabilities came about after then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s de-institutionalizing of people who lived in state hospitals in the 1960s.

People with disabilities have a bill of rights known as the Lanterman Act, which guarantees things such as housing and health care, and have state regional centers to provide wrap-around services for them.

Multiple agencies and private nonprofits provide supported housing for people with developmental disabilities as well. Project Homekey is an attempt to bring the state’s support for people with mental illness up to the same standards.

To date, California has awarded more than $1.3 billion in Homekey grant funding across the state since launching the program. Those funds have supported the creation of nearly 8,000 housing units, according to state officials.