The small Sonoma County town of Guerneville has always boasted a welcoming spirit.
The former lumber town-turned-resort which butts up against the Russian River has been a destination for visitors since the 1800s. But over the years, it’s also increasingly become a destination for the homeless who have ridden in on the down’s all-inclusive spirit, setting up elaborate camps along the river and leaving a wake of trash strewn through the area’s forests.
“They come here because it’s tolerated,” said lifelong Guerneville resident Margaret Benelli. “But it’s just gotten to a critical level.”
Around six-thousand residents live in Guerneville and the nearby town of Monte Rio. According to Sonoma County’s homeless count, some 240 – 280 homeless also reside in the area, a per-capita figure that’s about three times the national homeless average.
“Per capita we have four times as many homeless people than San Francisco,” said Mark Emmett, a retired firefighter and Guerneville resident who’s become a vocal opponent of the problem.
The issue is quickly evident for any visitor to the historic five block area of Guerneville’s downtown, where small storefronts harken back to its days as a lumber town. People with backpacks or pushing carts loaded with belongings are a common site. Along the river where visitors take to the waters in kayaks and canoes, a sprawling homeless tent city is tucked into the forest along the river’s edge.
County officials said many of the homeless are longtime residents of the area. But a new wave of younger, transient homeless youths have come to the area and are more likely to engage in drug use and crime.
“They’re not necessarily from the area,” said Lisa Kagan, a former beautician who lives in a tent by the river. “They come in and do drugs and rip and steal.”
Kagan said many of her homeless neighbors were forced to live outdoors by circumstance, rather than choice. She said she most would prefer to live indoors if they could afford it.
“If housing was provided,” Kagan said. “I guarantee you 90 percent of this population would go into housing.”
Emmett said the amount of trash left behind by homeless encampments is overloading the town’s resources and causing an environmental hazard when the rains wash the debris into the Russian River.
On a recent day, Emmett and Chris Brokate guided a visitor to a water culvert separated from the town’s main road by just twenty feet of trees. The ground was covered in piles of clothes, a forlorn couch, an abandoned sink and the residuals of a former camp. A toilet made from a cardboard box and a trash bag sat amid the clutter.
“This is a tragedy,” Emmett said glancing around the scene. “It makes people around here feel sad.”
Brokate leads regular weekend volunteer cleanups of the camps — but he said even the giant 20-yard dumpsters employed for the cleanups are often outmatched by the level of detritus.
“I lose sleep,” Brokate said. “And wake up thinking about when can we get that trash off the river. It’s just sitting out there.”
Sonoma County approved the funding for a permanent homeless shelter years ago but the plan was thwarted by the recession.
Now the county is once again edging toward plans to build a homeless service center in the area, which would include a shelter. Officials are expected to pick a preferred site for the center in the coming weeks.
“My personal feeling is we need a service center and a way out because there’s no way out,” said Debra Johnson, a Guerneville real estate agent who has worked on the homeless issue for years.
Every December, the town opens a temporary winter shelter in the Veterans’ Hall. But Johnson believes the area needs something permanent, with services to help the homeless get back on their feet and in housing.
“We fight about it and say we have all these homeless people we don’t want them here, but the fact of the matter is you can’t bus people out,” Johnson said.
But residents like Emmett and Benelli are worried about the idea of a permanent shelter in the area, which they believe will only draw more homeless to the area.
“What’s going to happen is people from out-of-the-area are going to hear about it and they’re going to come here,” Emmett said.
Benelli said many of the locations under consideration are in places prone to the area’s notorious winter floods. She suggested the county open a shelter in nearby Santa Rosa.
“It is just not the place for any type of long term shelter,” Benelli said.
Kagan sat on a log near her tent, petting her dog and pointing out a collection of bottles and trinkets someone turned into a shrine. A neighbor, whose tent sat thirty feet away, drifted in to say hello before wandering back to his camp. Kagan said she recently got approved for SSI and was hoping she could soon find a room she could afford on her $900 a month check.
“There are some of us who live here who are good people,” she said.