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Guerneville looks at homeless options

by Charlie Wagner

The "pantry" area being set up in the Vacation<br>Beach encampment in Guerneville. Photo: Charlie Wagner
The "pantry" area being set up in the Vacation
Beach encampment in Guerneville. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Angry residents shot down a Sonoma County proposal for a homeless service center in the LGBT-friendly town of Guerneville earlier this year, as the tourism-dependent area struggles to develop next steps to deal with what some call a growing issue.

After county officials announced a $1 million plan to buy a small horse ranch on Armstrong Woods Road for the center, residents packed a meeting of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, which is tasked with managing the homeless population.

Exact figures on the number of homeless weren't available (the county's Point-In-Time count is slated for next year), but some residents estimate it to be around 200 people.

While small compared to the thousands of homeless people living on the streets in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, Guerneville residents have raised concerns about tent encampments near the Russian River and the possibility of water pollution from trash and human waste.

According to the SCCDC website, the proposed center would have provided substance abuse counseling, primary care, dental care, and other services and would have contained a seasonal emergency shelter with 25-35 beds. County employees and possibly volunteers would have staffed it.

The April SCCDC meeting drew hundreds of people, including Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes Guerneville. Groups represented included the Guerneville Community Alliance, formed by Mark Emmett and other residents, and the Committee to Protect Guerneville School Children, Seniors, and Environment.

Five locations in and near Guerneville were discussed at the meeting. Attendees were given green dots to place on a board to indicate which location they favored, although only Armstrong Woods was immediately available. News reports on the meeting suggested most residents opposed any new shelter and favored continuing to use the Veterans Building in town, which operates a seasonal winter shelter from December to March.

Not everyone agrees on what most residents want.

"I don't think the majority of residents favor the status quo," Hopkins said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Most of the green dots were on the other locations."

Emmett said, "Unless we want to expand our infrastructure with more ambulances and deputies, most residents oppose a new shelter."

Debra Johnson, the broker-owner of the Berkshire-Hathaway real estate office in Guerneville, said, "For people at the April meeting, the answer is yes, they oppose any change. But lots of people are afraid and there's no easy solution."

Johnson is one of the organizers of what she calls the "Garbage Patch Kids." Her group works with local environmental organizations like Riverkeeper and Clean River Alliance to keep homeless encampments from spilling garbage and human waste into the Russian River.

In early May Hopkins said the county was no longer pursuing the Armstrong Woods property and was planning alternative strategies, according to the Sonoma West newspaper.

"We're changing our approach based on community feedback," she told the paper.

According to the county's Homeless Management Information System, over 70 percent of people who are homeless in the river area were housed in the river area prior to becoming homeless.

Hopkins could not confirm that statistic but believes a "significant portion" of homeless people come from the local area.

Johnson said the 70 percent figure sounds about right. She said that the existing winter shelter is "behaviorally-based," which means the person's only obligation is to conduct themselves in an acceptable way inside. The shelter does not require a person to be completely sober when they enter, but consumption of alcohol or drugs on the premises is not permitted.

Johnson dismissed the idea that the winter shelter is a desirable place drawing homeless people from out of town.

"It's laughable that anyone would come to Guerneville to use our shelter, as the people sleep on the floor, have one shower to share between 38 to 40 people and can only be there between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m.," she said. The only meal the homeless get is a dinner provided by community volunteers.

Although its operations are limited to a few months, Johnson claimed the shelter is a life-saver. "Before the shelter opened last December and after it closed in March, we saw an average of one person per month die," she said.

Wendy Bignall, a lesbian resident of Guerneville, also cited the 70 percent figure.

"I am not an advocate of homeless people as much as an advocate of better management of the homeless issue," Bignall said. She also noted that, "Lots of homeless people actually have jobs but still cannot afford to rent an apartment."

Bignall started working with the homeless in late 2015 when she joined Clean River Alliance. "I visited my first homeless encampment shortly after I joined CRA and felt a wide range of emotions, from 'these assholes are ruining the river' to 'how can this happen in America?'" she said.

She described how about 50 encampments that existed in early 2016 have been consolidated into five current camps, moving people away from the river to avoid polluting it. Bignall observed first-hand how "the camp residents started to make the connection that they were part of our community."


The 'War Zone'

Bignall and a reporter visited one camp, which currently has between 26 and 30 residents. Though the county has not legalized the encampment, the residents are working to meet three conditions sought by the health department: trash pickup, proper sewage treatment, and a drinkable water supply. Residents have achieved the first two already.

Camp resident Linda Del Castillo explained how she had been living in a trailer in Duncans Mills until a flood rendered it uninhabitable. "It was full of mold and I had to leave almost everything behind," she said. She is personally involved in organizing the camp and is the unofficial manager of the "pantry," which they hope will serve the entire camp.

Her friend and fellow resident Glynis Moeller calls their organizing group the Independent Coalition for the Residentially-Challenged. But Del Castillo has a more serious nickname for the camp itself: the War Zone.

Perhaps the most contentious issue among locals is the impact of the homeless on local crime. Guerneville is served by the Sonoma County Sheriff's office due to its non-city status and the local sheriff's station was slated for a staffing cut. But Hopkins said that cut was canceled and the recently approved county budget included $300,000-$400,000 to maintain current staffing levels.

Hopkins said that, "people with more challenging mental health issues tend to stay in town rather than in the woods."

Emmett believes law enforcement is key and claims that arrest logs show incidents are up to 60 percent homeless-related.

Johnson described how about two years ago the Russian River Chamber of Commerce hired a private security team for patrolling downtown. After several homeless-related incidents in late April, the sheriff's office responded by increasing patrols.

Sonoma West prints excerpts from the sheriff's office daily log, with entries ranging from "dumping/littering" to "assault with a deadly weapon." Most are for non-violent incidents. Between May 9-14, 45 incidents were reported and two were "homeless-related." For May 15-21, 44 incidents were reported and five were homeless-related. The most serious of the seven was for "display of weapon."

During the recent budget hearings, Hopkins pushed hard for extra funds to provide homeless services in the lower Russian River area, which includes Guerneville. The budget approved in June includes $1 million for this purpose and SCCDC is developing new proposals to present to the public.

Funding for permanent housing may also be considered in the future.

"I would support permanent housing if it is done right," Emmett said. "We're for solutions."

Johnson said, "My goal in life is permanent housing. I want to do what we can to help, rather than spend $300K for the sheriff to get the homeless to scoot along."

Hopkins, who was elected in November 2016, remains optimistic. "I'm lucky to represent a constituency who are passionate about community," she said. "In the future, I'd like to see more solutions-oriented discussions."



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