Santa Rosa business owners address homeless problem

Mara Varnell-Christensen, a junior and psychology major at Sonoma State University, says she might see anywhere from eight to 15 homeless residents walk past her work in downtown Santa Rosa on any given day.

“As a woman working in an all-women-run store, I definitely can feel nervous and intimidated by some of the people living on the streets downtown,” said Varnell Christensen.

This may come as no surprise for some, considering the homeless population in Sonoma County has been a growing issue for years. The Sonoma County 2015 Homeless Comprehensive Report by Applied Survey Research found that nearly half of the more than 2,000 unsheltered in the county live in central Santa Rosa. Most live in the downtown area, and near Railroad Square.

When homeless individuals end up in jail or hospitals, it costs taxpayers a significant amount of money. An average emergency visit can cost well over $1,000 without insurance. This cost in turn affects organizations, such as schools and businesses, because money is being used for these expenses instead of put back into our community. 

Kevin Sprenger, co-owner of Sprenger’s Tap Room located on B Street in downtown Santa Rosa, held a town hall meeting at his restaurant late Tuesday evening to address this issue. He, along with various other Santa Rosa business owners and members of the community, gathered to brainstorm ideas to address homelessness in the community.

Sprenger said that one contributing factor to the homeless population is the high cost of living.  Nearly 34,000 people are on waiting lists for low-income housing vouchers, according to an article in The Press Democrat. In Santa Rosa, more than 4,500 people wait an average of six to 10 years for rental assistance with these vouchers, according to the article.

“I truly believe that we need to create a voice at City Council Meetings. There are so many issues that are not addressed at our council meetings because we, as people who work and live downtown, do not attend.” Sprenger said at the meeting.

Many individuals, especially those working in or near downtown Santa Rosa, have expressed concern for their safety when they see homeless residents roaming the streets.

Some businesses have admitted to closing early or locking their doors in order to avoid disturbances.

Varnell-Christensen says she is often uncomfortable walking in the downtown parking lots in the evenings.

“My coworkers and I feel safest when we lock the doors after dark, and always accompany one another to our cars,” she said.

Homelessness is an issue that continues to be a hot topic among community members. There is the issue of public safety, but also remembering that homeless residents are members of our community that need our help.

“I do have a lot of empathy for these people and I feel sad that all of them have had some mixture of situations and circumstances in their lives lead them to this life on the street,” said Varnell-Christensen.

Last year, the Sonoma County Continuum of Care found 2,906 homeless individuals in Sonoma County, down from 3,107 the previous year, 4,280 in 2013 and 4,539 in 2011. However, there is still more work to do.

Sonoma State students are continuing their efforts to assist wherever possible. Join Us Making Progress is a community service program of Associated Students Inc., which provides Sonoma State students ways to impact not only their campus but their community. Programs include working at the food bank and serving meals to those in need.

Sprenger is planning on meeting with Special Assistant to the Office of the Vice President, Administration and Finance division Frank Scalercio to share ideas on how to get Sonoma State students further involved with the issue.

“If we can get the homeless in some sort of a jobs program, I think that that would be a great start,”  Sprenger said. “That way they can get themselves on their feet and become part of society.”

Sprenger recently hired two homeless individuals and is happy to say that both now have a roof over their heads.