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WHO are the Homeless in Sonoma County?


WHO are the Homeless in Sonoma County?

By Vesta Copestakes
Another CODE BLUE warning is posted and I can’t help but think of the people I met recently. My house is warm.  Temperatures are plummeting into the 20s at night. Ice everywhere.

John and Bonnie, who live at Camp Michela after losing their apartment to an abusive landlord, have become camp leaders of the tent village to keep it organized and safe for everyone.

Susie and David, pregnant with their first child, living in a tent while he goes to work at the day labor center every day, hoping to raise enough money to get an apartment before the baby comes.

Don who let us move him out of his river camp and is now safe in the winter shelter. His camp partner Luke, out there in his pile of debris by the Russian River, cozy - if you want to call it that - in between layers of who knows what? “Don’t touch my stuff!” he says as we approach to remove debris that will wash down the river when it floods. We gently ask again. He relents and let’s us take some of it - but not all. “You will leave your stuff when the river rises. Please let us do it now before that happens.”

Lisa who went into a drinking rage after her father died and lost everything, her job, her home, her life.  She has been clean and sober for a year - but homeless. Summer was good living in a tent by the river. But now she has financial aid and is getting a room where she can be warm and dry. Once she settles she can look clean enough to get a job and continue rehabilitating her life. She hopes.

Homeless Camp along Russian River
Daniel who just doesn’t want to be responsible for all the complexities of maintaining a home, likes the freedom this life affords. He is also clean and sober, organized in how he makes a living. He collects recycling to buy food, and does handyman work now and then. The unstructured life suits him perfectly.

Buck who is skinny as a broom stick helps us clean up his collection of what he makes a “home”. He drinks, knows it’s not good, but it’s his life. He used to shack up with women when he was younger, but his last girlfriend died and he’s been homeless ever since. He doesn’t like shelters because they are noisy and offer no privacy. He’d rather be outside in his own space where no one tells him what to do.

We who have homes, jobs, family, wonder what happens to a person to make them homeless. Yes, drugs and alcohol take their toll on lives and leave permanent damage. Mental illness plays a part. Sometime it’s self-inflicted through drug abuse, and sometimes people are born mentally impaired and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.

Sonoma County provides tax-funded health clinics, mental health services, designated places people can sleep safely at night with showers, toilets,  and trash receptacles. We interview homeless people every January to determine what works and what needs improvement. The county has a plan - see the article that follows - but not every homeless person wants to participate in what we offer.
Volunteers collect and distribute food, clothing, blankets and more. People offer their time, their hearts and concern. Compassion balances with anger and resentment.

Chris Brkate with Clean Rver Alliance and Russian Riverkeeper volunteers

Chris Brokate of the Clean River Alliance has organized clean-ups along the Russian River that hauled away many tons of debris. Each cleanup averages 4 to 6 tons and they have been happening at least twice a week since summer. Donated clothing is found strewn on the ground. Donated tarps to keep camps dry are mixed in with debris.  Volunteers along every creek in every community are picking up after people who throw stuff on the ground, into piles, and leave behind what they don’t want.

“How can people live like this?” is a question that comes up over and over. “How can they have so little concern for the environment?” volunteers ask again and again. It’s hard to keep hearts open in the face of all this debris that destroys habitat and threatens water quality. The focus always comes back to “We have to DO something!”

TAbandned homeless camp along creekhe BIG QUESTION is what IS that something we have to do? County programs take care of some of the problem - shelter and services. Volunteers take care of food, clothing, and offer kindness. But a REAL SOLUTION keeps eluding everyone.

Human beings are not all the same so no one solution will solve all problems. Every day people become homeless when they lose jobs and family...for MANY reasons. We do what we CAN for those who are willing to take the hand that is reaching out to help.

We clean up after people who don’t clean up after themselves because this  entire community, from city streets to river banks, is OUR HOME. We take care of our home in every way we can. With and without the cooperation of the humans who live here.

Please learn more, and think about volunteering for the homeless count so you can put a personal face on the people we are trying to help find shelter, opportunities ... and home.

Please READ Ending Homlessness in Sonoma County by 2025? and consider volunteering for the Sonoma County Homeless Count - you will learn - face-to-face - who are the peole who can use our help and will be able to benefit from programs for the homeless - and who will remail homeless no matter what we do.

Articles on finding solutions for Homelessness will continue - your thoughts and ideas are appreciated. Your time and energy is essential. Please read Ending Homelessness on page 13. Send LETTERS to


Regardless of anyone's situation, each of us have the potential of becoming homeless and an addict!

Take a moment to think if you and/or your significant other lost your job(s)  or had a workers comp claim! Just think... You guys are likely to rack up your credit cards and exhaust your savings and then you exhausted all your family and friend resources and ultimately separated due to the fights and stress!!! You fail to realize you are not as strong and as you thought.

Unable to get a job because the market is harsh ( I've seen over qualified applicants apply for a file clerk job at minum wage and get denied because they are over qualified)! Where does that leave you?

Hmmm, let us take a moment... You get  what I call critiszed and put down in a nice and respectful way because the longer you are with family or friends it will wear on them, if you seek help through church, it will, as well, only last so long!  SSI isn't much! sSDI runs out and SSDIB takes too !long and then what?? No friends, family and you get to the point where you hate the system/government because that leaves you begging for some type of assistance for all you have put into it, you expect a return.The waiting list for shelters are long and the requirements become too much for those whom have lost hope.

Reality tells us we do not have enough for our veterans or the mental health or our seniors much less for those who have jobs and can't afford the rents in Sonoma county!  So tell me those who have jobs and can't afford rent and have no stable address end up where? In a tent?

Then after a few months..imagine what they do? Reality is people get tired of being told what to do because when you lose everything you are TOLD what to do!! And are criticised for being homeless!! Or having exhausted your other resources! Which can evenutally lead to addiction.

People who have their lives in order also have an addiction and yet fail to realize it. We need to make jobs, housing, mental health and housing for our people, we need to make them feel like the are worth something vs making them feel like they are only getting assistance because of pity!

Rich or poor we are human and both have one thing in common! They feel they have no worth, the difference, one has the unlimited resources and the other doesn't! So tell me when we have the church, community and wineries and casinos in Sonoma county, why don't we have a cure to homelessness and rent control? The answer: no tax deduction and lack of humanity aka  someone who won't embezzle the $!!! 

Mi G, Forestville

Hello vesta

Good article. Im a recovered addict with 29 yrs sobriety. I agree with your in sight. I work alot with the homeless in the medical field. I have alot of respect and love for them. I live in Dixon

Thank you for your articale

Richard Bonoma, Dixon

I loved your article on the homeless in Sonoma County. It has become a real issue this past year. It is clear that not all homeless people are in that position in life because of circumstances out of their control.  In fact, some have actually chosen it as a way of life.  The tricky part is to be able to see past that and reach those that DON'T want to be homeless and really need assistance.  With the cost of housing out of control, once a person loses a roof over their head, it is hard to come back without assistance.  But how will we provide housing to those in need (and want it) without others taking advantage?  This will always be the dilemma of helping others.  

Thank you for the insightful article,

Maureen Weinstein
Sonoma County resident since 1969