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Homeless in Sonoma County


Homeless in Sonoma County

By Efren Carrillo

Soon after my first election, an issue that came to my attention was a request for funding for the emergency shelter at the Guerneville Veteran’s Building.  Upon reviewing the situation, it was clear that the shelter was primarily a community effort by local residents who had to scramble each year to find a location and seek approval for the funding to support the effort.  These volunteers from the Russian River Interfaith Coalition were supported by West County Community Services (WCCS) and led by Jan de Wald. They were passionate about ensuring that no one in their community died of exposure from living outside during the brutally rainy and cold winter months.

My question in seeing their valiant work was “Why is there no permanent solution to this issue if this is an ongoing need in the community?” This life saving effort was faced each year with uncertain funding and this was particularly acute in 2009, the depths of the Great Recession.  County services and staffing were being reduced, cut and eliminated at unacceptable but necessary rates. Even in the face of the fiscal cliff the County faced, we needed to focus efforts on a permanent solution to support those in need and the caring community which constantly struggled to help them without the County’s commitment of support.

Burbank Housing: Fife Creek Commons

During the same period, work on a similar project was underway. Burbank Housing was working to break ground on Fife Creek Commons – a now successful and much needed permanent housing project that assists folks in need of support to become self-sufficient. Our office heard protests from the community.  These protests reflected many recurring themes when it comes to providing services and shelter: Location, community pushback, and lack of services and effective means to help those challenged by mental health issues or substance addictions.  

Burbank Housing had sought a site for nearly a decade before securing the Mill Street location.  The project had been designed and funded, but some in the community were convinced that this was an impending disaster for the area.  Today, this project stands out as a success! It has improved lives for those it serves – most selected from the local community - but also has improved the neighborhood as well.

Burbank Housing, Fife Creek Commons, Guerneville 2012

Thus the county began an effort to solve this situation by providing a permanent place which would be eligible to receive Federal funding not available to the volunteers or WCCS without a formal program and location that could deliver wrap around services to assist homeless individuals.  Under the auspices of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission (SCCDC) and its Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Commission, a group comprised of a cross section of the community including businesses, residents, social services county agencies began to meet to tackle this challenge. Over 18 months this group worked to build meaningful consensus for recommendations for the Board of Supervisors on a permanent shelter and day services center for homeless people in the Russian River area. 

Getting the Right Things Done

The River Area Shelter and Downtown (RASAD) group attended many long meetings; researched approaches from programs both locally and nationally; discussed parameters for where an acceptable site would be located; and built an agreement on a service model that could work for the lower River, including standards of behavior for clients, and siting a public restroom.  This group came to agreement during a hard fought discussion among people who had wildly different interests and opinions, but were dedicated to educating themselves and coming to consensus on a proposal.  This was no easy task. 

During 2011, two community-wide public meetings were held by RASAD to convey information and receive feedback.  These were widely attended, and a final report on the group’s work was presented to the Board of Supervisors in May, 2013 with a request for funding a project.  The Board of Supervisors approved funding for a permanent site for services and housing to address the underserved shelterless population of the river area in June, 2013.  Subsequently, the search for property began.  Not an easy task in a flood prone area, which is why Fife Creek Commons took many years to site.  Additionally, the RASAD report recommendations specified that the site needed to be at least ½ mile from the downtown business core, and ideally within a mile of that area – making the site selection quite challenging.

Outreach continued, with 7 meetings (civic groups, public meetings, and RASAD) held last fall to discuss the project and potential sites that had been identified as worth evaluating.  In November, CDC staff returned to the Board of Supervisors and received approval to proceed with moving forward to acquire a site to establish a homeless services center in the lower River area.  The Board report included 5 sites that had been identified as meeting the criteria.

Administering Care

Winter came to the river area early, and the emergency shelter opened at the beginning of December, once again at the Veteran’s building.  Rumors began to fly that Guerneville had become a dumping ground for homeless people from Santa Rosa.  Then disaster struck when one of a series of suspicious fires destroyed the beloved West County Health Center.  Rumors became a toxic source of speculation, misinformation, and finger pointing.

What is true?  No one is bussing people to Guerneville. 

The lower river area has consistently been home to a large – relatively consistent at 240 +- souls – for decades.  The area is largely underserved by services.  The County has a behavioral health office, West County Community Services has relocated back to the river and expanded their service, and the Russian River Health Center recently received a federal grant to increase their mental, medical, and dental services to the homeless.

The Permanent Solution? 

The river area presents many challenges, and there is an existing – not new - population of folks who have lost their housing for one reason or another.  Their path back to security will not happen without assistance, and assistance is difficult if a journey to Santa Rosa is required.  The 101 corridor hosts the majority of our shelterless population, but the fact is that there have been homeless people camping in and around our beautiful river for decades.  Providing services at the source is our best chance to actually reduce the problem while helping those in need.

Giving a hand up to someone in need isn’t just the humane thing to do it is prudent as well. This hand up requires a permanent location and program which will access needed Federal and State funding  Consistent delivery of appropriate care and services is the best approach to solving the River’s homeless dilemma especially when combined with the caring heart of Guerneville seen in the work of the volunteers and local groups.  I look forward to the months ahead as we continue our progress to secure a permanent site and services for the lower river area and provide a true pathway of opportunity for all of our residents, even those currently without a structure they can call home.