Homelessness pervasive and persistent in river communities
When homelessness is viewed as a statistic, the lower Russian River area of Guerneville, Monte Rio and Rio Nido gets onto a lot of charts. The unincorporated area with a city-sized population has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in all of Sonoma County.
The most recent countywide homeless survey counted 248 individuals in the unincorporated west county, representing 8 percent of the county’s total 2,835 point-in-time count.
Lots of reasons are given about why the river’s homeless population is so prevalent. Some say the homeless camps and people have long been a part of a more diverse and tolerant ethos.
Others view the persistence of unsheltered people on Guerneville’s downtown sidewalks and in the camps as an unwelcome blight.
The census tracts and zip codes of 95446, 95471 and 95462 offer the lowest cost housing in the county. Low incomes, job instability, unmet social needs and lack of health coverage follow.
The lower river basin is home to as many as 7,000 people, but the area lacks any form of local government and the public services that an incorporated city might provide.
A small percentage of the homeless cohort overuse available emergency medical services, a concern often voiced by the directors of the Russian River Fire District. One-fourth of the log sheet at the river’s sheriff substation is filled with references to the homeless sub-population and one-third of the public drunkenness calls are pinned to a local shelterless person.
Those statistics are from a 2010-11 survey completed by the River Area Shelter and Downtown (RASAD) Task Group, commissioned by the county supervisors and its Community Development Commission. The RASAD report called for a year-round, drop-in center offering multiple services phased in over a period of time.
Fifth District county supervisor Lynda Hopkins sees her river constituents as “always having (had) a tremendous culture of compassion.” But she adds, “right now it’s getting pushed to its limits and being tested.”
“It’s pretty clear no one favors the status quo,” said Tim Miller, executive director for West County Community Services. “And, it’s just as clear that if we don’t do something (then) nothing’s gonna change.”
Lately, there’s been no shortage of suggested actions, ranging from building a year-round, multi-service homeless shelter to strict law enforcement action against lifestyle crimes of vulgarity and rudeness, unpermitted camps and littering.
Two town hall meetings convened by Hopkins earlier this year about possible sites for a shelter drew capacity crowds divided by their levels of tolerance but united by the same frustrations of inaction and a community-wide stalemate.
Many blame the lack of a local government structure, where incorporated cities have a mayor and council to get things done. Others fear adding services will attract more homeless people.
“Think about it,” said Danielle Danforth, who operated the emergency shelter in Guerneville last winter for West County Community Services. “Almost anytime we need something we have to look over to Santa Rosa at the county agencies. We’re underserved here. We only have three deputies and they have to act more like social workers than anything else. But we get along. We’re like family here. We fight like family and we love like family.”
Miller agrees there’s a lack of “formal infrastructure” and almost all community needs from law enforcement to economic development must, “default to the county (government.)”
Santa Rosa, with a $345 million annual operating budget, last year declared homelessness a crisis. it is spending $1.7 million this year on homelessness services and mandates. Half the county’s homeless population lives in Santa Rosa and the city government has adopted a “housing first” goal.
Incorporated Sebastopol had just 71 homeless people counted in the point-in-time survey, while offering no city-funded housing or social services. “Small cities really don’t have that kind of funding,” said Mayor Una Glass.
Providing workforce and affordable housing helps with the overall homeless problem, she said.
The city and West County Community Services just opened eight new affordable mobile home units in its Village Mobile Home Park.
“Working with other agencies like this is the best way we can go. We know we have homeless people in the Laguna and living in their cars. I’m glad we were able to do this project.”
“Every person is very different from all others,” said Jennielynn Holmes, of Catholic Charities based in Santa Rosa. “People that are homeless also have their own unique, specific journey.” She is a strong advocate of “housing first” and disputes the belief that offering more homeless shelter or services will attract larger homeless populations.
“The point-in-time survey just proved that when we actually put services in place, the (homeless) population goes down,” said Holmes.
The 2017 survey showed an overall decline of county unsheltered people, especially among veterans and in Santa Rosa where a concentration of new services was focused.
On the river Miller says he knows of family units and multi-generations of homeless people.
“You might be homeless, but it is still the community where you grew up,” he said. “When you know the system or have a familiar network you tend to stay put. Besides, people here are transitioning in and out of homelessness all the time. It happens on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.”
Eighty percent of the river’s homeless population is longer-term local residents, according to the point-in-time survey and other reports.
Individual interviews with the current homeless people show a sudden loss of a job, separation from a spouse, a rental increase or a relapse with drugs or alcohol took the roof away from someone who already was living below the poverty line or on some other narrow ledge.
“Lots of folks may not be homeless today, but our lack of affordable housing makes many people at-risk of becoming homeless tomorrow,” said county supervisor Hopkins.
Hopkins also said she is extra concerned about the incidents of homelessness among younger people and hopes that promised new county funding could help address that need.
Some recent efforts have created new low income housing and shared housing units for formerly homeless people in Guerneville. Miller’s community services and the West County Health Centers have deployed new services and field visits for the homeless population.
Still, over the past 15 months there have been 12 men who died from conditions the social workers and health providers termed “homelessness.” These premature and avoidable deaths were attributed to heart failure, stress, physical exposure, poor diet or substance abuse. Their average age was 53.
Last winter, during the time the emergency shelter was open, there were no deaths among the homeless population, manager Danforth pointed out.
“Homelessness has a huge impact on health,” said Mary Szecsey, executive director of the West County Health Centers. “We work hard with the other agencies to try to find housing.”
The health centers have a homeless services team that currently serves about 190 homeless clients.
“There won’t be an end to homelessness, short of a magical wand to rebound the economy,” said Miller. “But there’s no better answer than to help get people off the streets.”
Meanwhile community volunteers and agencies offer weekly showers, laundry service, storage space and warm meals.
Hopkins’ and the county effort to build a year-round shelter somewhere in the lower Russian River area is currently on a long hold.
“Whether you are living under an underpass in Santa Rosa or under the redwoods along the river, it’s the same set of serious problems and concerns,” said Hopkins.