The Wild West Needs a Deputy
By Jeniffer Wertz
Last month I wrote about the extremely disproportionate number of homeless people for our small remote and environmentally sensitive area, which also lacks the resources of a large city to deal with it. To recap the highlights, we have 2.5-3.3 times more homeless per capita than Santa Rosa, and 15-20 times the national rate, no 24 hour ER, no detox or jail, one ambulance, and only a few deputies to cover 911 calls within a huge area. Those were important numbers and facts, but those things don’t address how it affects the rest of us living here personally on a daily basis. By the rest of us I mean the ones who work to pay rent or mortgage to live here, many of whom also have struggles of our own, but then also have to pay for all the benefits and programs, and all of the salaries for the people working as service providers and in our county government. For us, it translates to things like an employee getting spit on at work simply because the bathroom wasn’t open, or a bunch of fire trucks and an ambulance in front of your house when you try and leave because someone living in an illegal encampment full of huge amounts of squalor got too drunk and wants a free ride to the Emergency Room in Santa Rosa, or a business owner opening up in the morning with someone standing in front holding items they stole from them screaming their head off refusing to leave. Those were all just things I personally saw or heard about in one day last week, and it’s not everything. We all see it every day on every sidewalk, bus stop, doorway, parking lot, and under every bridge anytime we go outside in this town. Why has nothing changed in a year since the town meeting? Why hasn’t it changed since the RASAD taskforce group in 2010? Why isn’t it being fixed? Why doesn’t it seem like anybody cares about HELPING the rest of us?
We the volunteers with the Guerneville Community Alliance have been at this a year since the town meeting. It gets frustrating. It seems like it should be a whole lot easier to clean up a very small town like Guerneville. Why is it so hard and so complicated? What is the attraction, and even more importantly, what is the solution(s)?
The attractions are illegal encampments, a lot of supportive type services, and being allowed to get away with bad and illegal behavior. There, I said it. A lot of people may disagree and will feel like that’s not a compassionate thing to say. I’ve done a lot of research and outreach to come to that conclusion though, and maybe I’m right? As far as compassion goes, is it compassionate to just keep enabling people to live in the bushes and parking lots, drinking/using everyday indefinitely until they die there, or is it more compassionate to force them to get into legal shelters and programs designed to get them back on track and improve the quality of their lives, whether they like it or not? How do you do that you say? Law enforcement. Oh no, I said that too. I know that’s unpopular with a lot of people, but please just consider this alternative.
No, homelessness is not a crime, and yes, you cannot arrest the problem away. I get it. Healthcare, substance abuse programs, mental health programs, living wages and affordable housing are all significant components that are needed to solve the problem. I get it. But, it’s clear that what we’ve been doing is not working. It’s clear on every four block walk through downtown every day that what we’ve been doing is not working. We haven’t been able to find a place for the service center that may or may not have fixed the problem, after many people trying for many years to find one, and we don’t have any place for actual housing either. That’s the big elephant in the room that everybody seems to ignore. When do we quit banging our heads on the wall doing the same things that haven’t worked, and when do we admit we need to try something else that might work instead? Isn’t the most important thing to fix it no matter what the approach is? So, why don’t we look at things that do work? If we try it and it fails, we can always go back to the status quo. There’s a program called Sober Circle in Petaluma that’s working. Petaluma PD had reported that a staggering 50% of their calls for service were homeless related calls. Sober Circle was somewhat started by a couple of frustrated and disheartened patrol officers looking for solutions. They decided to reach out to the health care/services organizations to try and work together to solve the homeless problem. After researching other programs that worked in other jurisdictions, the Police dept. dedicated an officer to the program that was developed. A 2016 Press Democrat article reported that the unsheltered homeless population in Petaluma had been reduced from 89% in 2013 to 40% in 2015, and the total homeless population had drastically decreased from 909 in 2013 to 361 in 2015 due to the efforts of the police dept. working with non-profit service providers.
The Petaluma Health Care District obtained funding for a two-year pilot program from Kaiser Permanente, St. Joseph’s Health, and Partnership Health Plan, which is an insurance provider for MediCal. They hired a services outreach representative to work with the designated police officer, the two of whom respond together to any calls for service that involved homelessness and substance abuse. They then give the person the option of going to jail for being under the influence or voluntarily committing to a treatment program. If they chose the treatment program, they are taken to the Centerpoint DAAC detox/treatment facility in Santa Rosa (Turning Point/Orenda Center) instead of jail, where they stay for a 3-day detox and a 31-day in-patient treatment program. If they complete the program, they are guaranteed a space in the COTS shelter in Petaluma, and priority for fast tracking to permanent housing. The first year of the program has resulted in 21 people completing the 31-day treatment, 6 people have been transferred to housing, and there has been a huge decrease in homeless related calls for police services per Erin Hawkins from the Petaluma Health Care District. Hawkins also stated they are definitely seeing shorter and less intense relapses from the people that have been in the program, even if they didn’t complete it.
I also spoke with Georgia Berland, who is the coordinator for the Sonoma County Taskforce for Homelessness. She reported that the county has just begun a similar program within the last month, however they are starting in Santa Rosa, and do not have a lower river area deputy involved at this point. Besides the location and lack of a deputy, the county program is expected to only process 10-20 people per year through the treatment/housing program for the whole county. Since we have between 150- 200 homeless people in just the lower river area alone, it seems like maybe we ought to be stepping that up a bit.
Why don’t we try what is working instead of continuing to do what’s not? Some tough love might actually work and change some lives for the better. We need a deputy.
If you would like to learn more about the Lower River Area Community Alliances, become involved as a volunteer, or if you have some community concerns or solutions you would like to share, you can “like” our Guerneville Community Alliance and/or Russian River Alliance (Monte Rio) FB pages. You can also contact Mark Emmett at 707-529-0534 (Guerneville) or Chuck Ramsey at 707-239-1639 (Monte Rio).