Innovative partnership tackles homelessness while also protecting waterways

March 4, 2021

Rohnert Park, CA — A new collaboration between Sonoma State University, water agencies, cities and social service organizations is working on new solutions for complex challenges surrounding homelessness and water quality. 

Homelessness in Sonoma County is a complex issue and one that does not have a simple solution. Most people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County are long-time residents of the area. As they struggle to find new shelter, many find solace and privacy in the trees and shrubs bordering waterways. This has put them into direct conflict with state water regulations surrounding trash, plastics, pathogens and other waste. 

Agencies, cities and others have been thrown to the front lines of humanitarian efforts to reduce homelessness. “Our work has changed dramatically,” says Sean McNeil, deputy director of environmental services with the City of Santa Rosa. “Our training in water quality management has not prepared us to deal with such a complicated social, economic and humanitarian issue.” McNeil is looking for new ways to partner.

McNeil is part of a new collaboration with SSU’s Center for Environmental Inquiry (Center) called Rising Waters. In addition to the Center and City of Santa Rosa, the group includes the Russian River Watershed Association, Sonoma County Water Agency (Sonoma Water), North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, West County Health Centers, and the City of Rohnert Park. 
“Homelessness is a health, societal, economic and environmental issue. We need to work across sectors to tackle it,” says Jenna Garcia, housing administrator with the City of Rohnert Park and a member of the working group. 

In September 2020, the Center convened two workshops with 32 regional leaders in academics, health, social services, water provision, and water regulation to explore cross-sector solutions. After the workshops, the Center recruited faculty-student teams to collect critical information identified by participants as needed for building new partnerships: 

  • David Sul, M.Sc., and four students from the Department of Political Science are developing maps of encampments of people experiencing homelessness and the location of available services such as public trash receptacles, restrooms and drinking fountains. Using the maps will better determine locations where services are most needed to prevent waste from entering waterways. 
  • Dr. Armand Gilinsky, Department of Business, is working with two MBA students who are analyzing case studies to identify potential ways of reducing the legal and political barriers that prevent organizations from providing services to people experiencing homelessness. 
  • Dr. Megan Burke and four students from the Departments of Philosophy, Psychology, and Women & Gender Studies are identifying ways that agencies and non-profits can better coordinate on providing services.   

“These studies will open up new opportunities for collaboration,” says Andy Rodgers, executive director of the Russian River Watershed Association (RRWA), a coalition of eleven cities, counties and special districts that coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement. “SSU faculty and students are helping us to identify what needs to be done or done differently, ways and places where we need to focus, and who we need to partner with to get it done.” 
Rising Waters not only benefits communities but also prepares students to take on complex challenges after they graduate. “Our students learn best by working on issues that matter to our communities,” says Dr. Burke. “When they enter the workforce, they will have the kinds of skills and experiences we want our leaders to have.” 

Rising Waters is a new initiative emerging from a seven-year partnership between the Center and Sonoma Water that engaged 50 faculty and over 3,000 students in studies targeting water pollution, flood, drought, and conservation. Rising Waters takes that collaboration further, establishing as its measure of success the meaningful improvement in water-related sustainability and resilience challenges of the North Bay. The first two years of the three-year initiative are made possible with funding by Sonoma Water, RRWA and private donor Alexander Leff. 

The academic-community partnership is part of a renewed commitment to sustainability and resilience at SSU. “With climate change at our doorstep, SSU wants to help our communities find new solutions for our most pressing issues,” says Chris Halle, Rising Waters Project Lead at the Center. “We want to mobilize the energy and expertise of our faculty and students to help our community leaders find new solutions.”

Results of the three studies will be made available at a public workshop later this summer and on the Center website. “We know this effort can’t solve the problem of homelessness,” says Garcia. “But it can provide us with valuable information to better address the impacts and improve support systems.” 

SSU students working on the project are: Nadine Magallanes, Jamie Thompson, Matt Roehm, Samantha Stevens, Lauren Hart, Itze Peña-Andrade, Camile Babida, Deborah Barrera, Morgan Monae Beatty, and Lauren Williams.

Sonoma State is a public university committed to educational access and excellence, with a long-standing tradition of promoting intellectual and personal growth, leadership opportunities, and technological proficiency. We are driven by a commitment to the liberal arts and sciences and guided by core values of sustainability, inclusivity, and integrity. Situated among the rolling hills of Sonoma County, SSU is a living example of Northern California’s diverse natural beauty. We provide high-quality education through innovative programs that leverage the area's economic, cultural, and natural resources. Learn more at the SSU Newsroom.

Media Contact

Julia Gonzalez