Javi Cabrera-Rosales, director de proyectos del Proyecto CURA y La Plaza, posa para un retrato en su casa de Sonoma el sábado 21 de noviembre de 2020 (Foto: Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
$12M will help people in need at vital time
Funding to boost mental health, food, housing assistance
By Mary Callahan The Press Democrat

Sonoma County supervisors have approved nearly $12 million to continue funding to more than two dozen programs providing assistance to people in especially hard-hit communities.

The board unanimously approved second-round funding for 26 community projects, helping with housing, nutrition, mental health support, child care, workforce development and educational needs, financed last year under the federal COVID-era American Rescue Plan Act. Dozens of service providers and ground-level organizations are involved, often working together toward specific goals.

The extension of those programs is still only “likely” because all but one received tentative renewal during Tuesday’s vote. Formal approval will be dependent on successful efforts over the next few months by the involved organizations to ensure record-keeping complies with federal audit requirements and programming aligns with project proposals as first approved.

The board nonetheless celebrated what west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins called “really groundbreaking work” providing aid to underserved communities in partnership with service organizations generally new to government contracts and federal grants.

“We know that all of these contracts are going into areas of absolute need in our community,” Supervisor James Gore said.

The grants are part of $96 million allocated to Sonoma County government through the federal rescue plan to aid those caught up in the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Signed into law in March 2021, a year into the pandemic, the aid was meant partly to help cover local governments’ emergency response efforts and to stimulate economic activity, including investment in infrastructure.

It also was an effort to prevent those who suffered most from the ravages of the disease, repeated shutdowns, social isolation and widespread unemployment from falling permanently behind, financially and otherwise.

Sonoma County officials reserved $15 million of their $96 million American Rescue Plan Act dollars for emergency COVID response.

But the largest allocation, almost $40 million, went toward what they call the Community Resilience Program aimed at supporting those who most suffered during the height of the pandemic, including populations with the highest COVID rates, largely in communities of color; essential workers, including farm workers; high school students who graduated during virtual learning; students, business owners and nonprofits from Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.

Twenty-seven projects were funded initially under 18-month contracts, running from July 2022 to December 2023. The grants anticipated a second round of funding for the year 2024, for a combined total of $39.3 million.

List of organizations

Recipients included organizations like 10,000 Degrees, First 5, The Living Room, Positive Images, Food For Thought, the Ceres Project, Nuestra Comunidad, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma County Black Therapy Fund, the Russian River Alliance and many others.

Since July 2022, partners have delivered about 487,000 meals, or the equivalent in food boxes, to people in need, county staffers said Tuesday. More than 447 county residents have received direct financial assistance — either $500 a month or $3,000 per person.

Intensive, one-on-one mental health support has been provided to 175 people. Over 600 students have participated in the more than 80 grant-funded programs.

And more than 100 people received workforce development and career preparation assistance, including leadership skills building and support for certification courses.

Among the program goals was to partner with organizations closely connected and well positioned to serve marginalized communities but which might not otherwise have experience or administrative staff to take advantage of federal grants.

The county recruited demographically diverse members of the public, with a focus on involving Black, Indigenous and other people of color, to screen 78 grant applications during an extended community engagement process to identify areas of need and establish priorities. The county also continues to provide technical assistance to help grant recipients build capacity to compete for public dollars going forward, officials said.

The effort included an anti-racist accountability approach and demographic data collection to help inform future programming.

Issues to be resolved

There was a learning curve for many of the contracted organizations and, particularly, subcontractors, however, as they geared up to operate under the bureaucratic requirements that come with federal dollars, said Alegría De La Cruz, who was intimately involved in the Community Resilience Program as director of the county Office of Equity.

A firm auditing community partners for federal compliance found a variety of issues that must still be resolved by Dec. 31 in order for grant recipients to have their contracts extended.

They include things like missing time cards or mileage reimbursement receipts and other challenges county personnel are helping them to address, De La Cruz said.

“This was expected,” she said. “We designed for it. We recognize that these were going to become some of the challenges with our grantees, and the subcontractors, in particular.”

The county also had to rescind $1.8 million in promised funding for a proposed tiny home village for up to 50 unhoused Latinos in the Roseland area of Santa Rosa after the community group behind it, Sonoma Applied Village Services, was unable to find property for the project.

County supervisors said they loathed having to withdraw the funding, given the need, especially as Sonoma Applied Village Services representatives pleaded for a chance to take the project somewhere nearby.

But officials said that because the proposal evaluated during the competitive application period specifically identified Roseland as the target site, Sonoma Applied Village Services’ contract would be suspended, “through no fault of their own.”

“It’s the real estate market,” Board Chairman Chris Coursey said. “I think we all understand... It’s just a problem that we can’t get over without messing with the process.”

Some of the withdrawn funding will be redirected to potential county staff salaries that could be needed if some projects require a third year to complete. The remainder is to be made available for other homeless services needs.

Help for Elsie Allen

The lone project approved outright will allow an additional $442,701 to go toward educational programming at Santa Rosa’s Elsie Allen High School to address educational disparities through extended learning opportunities, family and community engagement and social services for the campus of 1,100 students. The project already was granted $657,509 for the period from July 1, 2022, through the end of 2023, for a total of $1.1 million.

The federal rescue plan requires all federal monies to be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and expended by Dec. 31, 2026.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.