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Grants Given Out for Guerneville Homeless Services

by Charlie Wagner

The new Homeless Healthcare Center on Third Street in downtown Guerneville, operated by West County Health Centers, is expected to open in April
The new Homeless Healthcare Center on Third Street in downtown Guerneville, operated by West County Health Centers, is expected to open in April  (Source:Charlie Wagner)

Giving added urgency to the homeless issue in the Russian River community is the fact that two people living on the streets of Guerneville have died since January 1.

With 1 percent of the total county population, the 2017 count found the lower river area had 248 homeless individuals, more than 8 percent of the county total. Many of the housed know their unhoused neighbors by sight, and often by name. Metropolitan Community Church of the Redwood Empire hosted a memorial in Guerneville last month for all who died in the past two years.

In early 2017, District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins found $750,000 for West County homeless services. She formed the Lower Russian River Homeless Task Force, which included Environmentalist and Clean River Alliance founder Chris Brokate and 15 others. After a formal review process, the Board of Supervisors approved $450,000 in grants last December. The other $300,000 remains for future proposals.

West County Community Services received $221,000 to identify housing and get homeless individuals housed; Russian Riverkeeper/Clean River Alliance got $100,000 for environmental education and trash collection to prevent waste from polluting the watershed, including regular trash removal from homeless encampments; Social Advocates for Youth was awarded $58,000 for outreach to young adults struggling with a lack of housing; Russian River Alliance/Guerneville Community Alliance received $50,000 for emergency relief for local low-income workers; and Russian River Area Resources and Advocates got $20,000 for coordination of community efforts to housing access and to help local groups apply correctly for future grants.

Tim Miller, WCCS executive director and a member of the task force, said the greatest need for their homeless services is in the Guerneville area.

"Nine months ago homeless were 10 percent of our clients, now they are 16 percent," Miller said. "Many people are at risk of becoming homeless because of a single trauma."

Last summer, Hopkins separately appropriated $250,000 to WCCS for a program called Rapid Rehousing, intended for people recently homeless or at imminent risk. "When we see a 'pay or quit' notice, the program can give landlords money to help keep the tenants in the property," Miller said.

With the funding, WCCS now has a total of $471,000 for the Rapid Rehousing program. As of February 15, Miller said they have 33 adults and 15 children in the program and have helped 34 find housing, including nine previously homeless and 25 at-risk.

WCCS will have one employee in the new Health Center for Homeless building, spending eight hours a week helping the homeless get jobs. "Having no address is a big barrier, but the biggest issue for homeless people is personal presentation," Miller said. "We will provide a shower and place to wash clothes and help them get spruced up."

Mitigating the Impact

WCCS also prioritizes mitigating the impact of those without homes, a topic that arouses much passion in Guerneville.

One organization frequently not in agreement with WCCS on that topic is the Guerneville Community Alliance, or GVCA, a project of the Russian River Alliance. GVCA has no formal membership list, operates with a handful of volunteers, and communicates primarily through social media. GVCA spokeswoman Jeniffer Wertz said they have no paid staff.

Wertz believes something about the West County draws homeless people and questions the origins of the local homeless population. The 2017 count found that 79 percent of the homeless listed Sonoma County as their "residence prior to homelessness." Wertz is a lesbian resident of downtown Guerneville who works as an appraiser.

Wertz described how GVCA will use its grant. "Any local worker employed more than 24 hours a week in Guerneville, Monte Rio, or Rio Nido will be eligible for assistance grants," she said. "They must have a maximum income of 50 percent or less of area median income, which roughly works out to $30,000 for one person. One hundred percent of the grant will go to workers."

GVCA started distributing applications in late January. "We hope to make people self-sufficient and do something about the growing split between rich and poor," Wertz said. GVCA made two disbursements as of January 27 and will refer non-working applicants to WCCS.

At a public meeting in April 2017 about a proposed (and later dropped) homeless service center on Armstrong Woods Road, Wertz said GVCA collected about 300 surveys showing "95 percent in favor of more transparency." She cited the conversion underway currently of the former dental clinic in Guerneville, now temporarily moved to Sebastopol, to what she called a "homeless service center" as one example of a lack of transparency.

But according to Jed Heibel, program manager for homeless health care services at West County Health Centers, the new facility will be a Homeless Healthcare Center and will have no beds. Expected to open in April, the clinic will be run by WCHC and will serve its current 248 homeless clients. Heibel is also a member of the task force.

Wertz complained the clinic should have included a substance abuse center and supports the establishment of a substance abuse center downtown "if there's no adverse impact on the surrounding community." Wertz would support a year-round homeless shelter in Guerneville if it accepted only clean and sober residents or those agreeing to accept substance abuse treatment.

Wertz would also support a housing approach being tried by the city of Sebastopol by WCCS where some RVs were purchased and offered to the homeless as long-term housing, but qualified that with, "If it did not have an adverse effect on the neighborhood."

But it's not clear GVCA would support any expansion of homeless services since Wertz said, "The Russian River is an environmentally sensitive area so homeless services would be better offered elsewhere."

Wendy Bignall, a lesbian resident of downtown Guerneville, is a volunteer with the Clean River Alliance and has a different perspective. Bignall said she co-founded GVCA to give property owners the information and tools for dealing with homeless campers. She is no longer associated with that group.

"It's not morally right to push people on and on," Bignall said.

A very important issue for Wertz is the need for stricter enforcement of alcohol laws in the town center.

"I see people drinking (downtown) every day," she said.

Bignall does not agree that the winter shelter actually draws more homeless to Guerneville. She pointed out that clients sleep on mats on the floor, cannot stay there during the day, and only get meals when community volunteers prepare them. In response to Wertz's complaints about the winter shelter's behaviorally-based approach, Bignall stated, "It is inhumane to refuse to let people stay overnight at the shelter."

Bignall and her wife live close to the Mill Street, Cherry Creek, and Fife Creek residences run by WCCS and observed, "They are working very well and we see no problems."

WCHC is the largest nonprofit providing homeless services in Guerneville and has four other licensed sites in the county and a budget of $18 million, mostly funded from federal reimbursement. Its focus is low-income residents and it charges on a sliding scale, which Heibel said "starts at zero."

Heibel explained the WCHC approach. "Our medical team goes to camps until the residents start coming to health center," he said. "When they move, they lose touch and are dislodged from their system of support."

Brokate pointed out, "moving (campers) around is worse for the environment because they react by burrowing deeper into the forest."

After observing trash washed down the Russian River during high water in December 2014, Brokate organized an informal group for a beach cleanup in December 2015 and again on Earth Day. "We were different than other Earth Day cleanups because we had homeless trash cleanup as one of our goals from the start," he explained.

During those cleanups Brokate spoke with homeless campers who told him, "It would help if you guys were able to get us more bags," and asked they could come back to pick them up. CRA started organizing regular trash cleanups and promoted the idea "if you pack it in, pack it back out."

CRA is now part of the Russian Riverkeeper organization, an environmental nonprofit, and Brokate is the project's director. He said that in 2017 alone, CRA removed about 160,000 pounds of trash from the Russian River watershed.

But as more than one person pointed out, the only real answer to homelessness is homes, and that means funding. Guerneville is not incorporated and relies on funding from Sonoma County for all public projects.

The goal of the Homeless Healthcare Center is "to create an environment where the homeless can access services in one place," Heibel said. "If we kick people out, we find their relapse causes them to go much deeper."


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