May 7, 2017
By Jennifer Wertz and Mark Emmett, River Community Advocates
Tourism is what supports this Russian River community we all love and call home. Like it or not, the reality is without it there would be no town. It’s what allows all of us to live here in this beautiful place. We bear the difficulties of winter together, and try and help each other make it through them, so we can enjoy the summer alongside our welcome guests who support our resort town lifestyle on the river. Most of us feel a great sense of gratitude for being able to live here, but rarely thank a dishwasher or the owner of the restaurant they work at for keeping the doors open so we can.
Something interesting happened just before the second town meeting on April 24th regarding the year-round homeless service center proposal. A few of our downtown merchants approached the Guerneville Community Alliance and said they were interested in organizing a private meeting. They expressed that fear has kept them from being able to speak publically at town meetings or otherwise. Fear of alienating fellow community members who may have opposing views, fear of making the town look bad and driving away the tourists that they and their employees depend on for their livelihood, and fear of retaliation from the sub-population of the homeless who cause trouble for them daily and roam our streets freely at night, while their businesses sit unguarded and vulnerable. So, we helped facilitate a private meeting for them after the town meeting on the same night. We invited Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Capt. Essick, who supervises the Sheriff’s dept. patrol operations and is a candidate for Sheriff, Lt. Molinari, who oversees the Guerneville Sheriff’s sub-station, and reps. from Fire and CHP. About a dozen word of mouth invitations went out mostly from the merchants themselves, and we didn’t really know what kind of turnout to expect after hours when everyone would certainly be tired from working all day.
Brad and Raena from the Rio Nido Roadhouse generously offered us their back room area and provided complimentary appetizers, and we arrived to find people already waiting for us and filing in, a lot of people. The room was filled to capacity with about 40 people, almost to the point of standing-room only by the time we started the meeting. The original plan was to give everyone a couple of minutes to speak, but we had to keep it to one minute each due to the number of people who showed up, many of whom we had no idea how they even got word of the meeting, let alone that they would be interested enough to show up. They were certainly interested, and they showed up.
Let’s be clear, there was no lack of compassion or lack of interest in helping homeless people who are not trouble makers, and the complaints were not directed at those types of folks at all. This meeting was about what the merchants needed for a change though, as they have mostly been forced to just suck it up and deal with it quietly no matter what. It was their turn to talk about their needs to be able to stay open, keep employing people, keep generating revenue for the county to be able to pay for the programs and services, and keep our town alive. We sat and listened to one merchant after another tell horrible stories about how negatively the homeless problem has affected their business, many of whom have been here working hard and contributing to our community for decades. There were too many stories about having to clean up human feces and of incidents of disrespectful and disruptive behavior to count. Many spoke of significant declines in revenue as they have watched the problem get worse and worse over the last few years. Many expressed not knowing how much longer they would be able stay open if something didn’t change soon. One merchant cried as she talked about the daily harassment she has had to silently endure and the lack of anyone being interested in helping her with the problem. We were read a blistering one-star travel review just written earlier the same day about an expensive resort where the guest said, “what is going on in your town?”, and made it very clear they would never return to Guerneville. We heard about squatters, threats, and even arson. Many said it’s the worst they’ve ever seen it. All expressed a desperate need for more law enforcement. We were there until 11:30 pm, but everyone got a chance to say what they’ve been afraid to say publically, and they were heard by the county officials who also stayed that late to listen. The whole community should have been able to hear their anonymous cries for some support.
The very next morning there were more deputies assigned to do community policing in our area. Though there were certainly many other factors involved in the decision, about a week later it was announced that the year-round homeless service center plans were being halted for now. Supervisor Hopkins was quoted in an earlier Sonoma County Gazette article by Vesta Copestakes as stating “The current impacts of homelessness and lawlessness are unacceptable. While our next steps will address current impacts and help people, we must craft long-term solutions to make a difference. The community feedback will continue to guide development of the County’s approach.”
The Community Alliances hear you merchants, service and hospitality workers, and welcomed guests who allow any of us to have a town to live in at all. The backbone of this community deserves our respect and support, and their needs have to matter too. Thank you for all you contribute to our community. We’ll keep trying to help until a healthy and safe balance has been found for everyone.
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 Facebook pages. You can also contact Mark Emmett at 707-529-0534 (Guerneville) or Chuck Ramsey at 707-239-1639 (Monte Rio).
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