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Trust This Man - Working with Homeless in Healdsburg


Trust This Man - Working with Homeless in Healdsburg

By Vesta Copestakes

You never know who a person is until you spend time with him or her. And you never really know the heart of a community unless you live there. On a misty morning in January, I joined a team of volunteers to perform the Point in Time Homeless Count for Sonoma County. I chose Healdsburg because it’s outside my own community and people have the impression that there are no homeless in Healdsburg. How can one community escape what is so prevelant everywhere else? It can’t.

We gathered at the Healdsburg Day Labor Center on Grove Street, first for training, then for the day of the count. Across from me sat a beautiful middle-aged woman, dressed in fine clothes with fashionable shoes. She didn’t fit my pre-formed opinion of someone who would be trudging along railroad tracks and scouting under creekside bushes for homeless camps. But she was especially engaged in the process and at one point spoke up.

“Dont’ be afraid.” she said. She went on to tell us of her experience the previous year and how it changed her mind and her heart about the people we were about to count. 

I later learned that she is Colleen Householder, the Executive Director of North Sonoma County Services and is very much familiar with, and involved in, serving the homeless community of Healdsburg north to Cloverdale.

To my left was a middle-aged man who was clearly very involved in this project and who at one point got up to bring another man to sit next to him. When the second man sat down the scent of homelessness invaded our corner. He was among those who would be leading a group of volunteers to find camps where people could be counted. 

Each group was provided a guide, a person living on the streets who knows the community, knows who is among the homeless, and where to find them for the count. 

By dawn on the day of the count we left in teams to explore sections of Healdsburg to which we had been assigned. I was with a former police officer, a woman in her early 50s, a gentle man about the same age and our homeless guide, Gina, who turned out to be 52. 

Gina knew exactly where to take us because she has lived here all her life. At one point she asked us to drive down the street where she grew up in the shelter of her mother and siblings. The house is now a rental, sold years ago when her mother died.

Homeless people have the same bond people have who share similar interests, are part of clubs and organizations. It’s the bond of shared experiences. It’s also good to be part of a larger group when you are vulnerable. People look out for each other. They form small villages of tents, tarps, supplies...and the every-present debris.

It’s the debris we call trash that gets our attention. How can people live this way? What makes a person become homeless? What makes them stay homeless? Why don’t they do something about it, at least clean up after themselves? We on the outside cannot fathom what it’s like on the other side of that lifeline. 

Crossing the Line

The first time I came into intimate contact with homeless camps was working with Chris Brokate who formed the Clean River Alliance last year. He is the owner of a janitorial service, Green Janitor Service,  who felt impelled to clean up along the Russian River banks before impending rains washed everything out to sea. 

As he gathered people to help, he came to know the individuals he was cleaning up after, and instead of approaching them with disdain, he reached out with kindness and concern. 

As a result, homeless people started helping him with the clean ups. One thing led to another and now Chris is under the umbrella of the Russian Riverkeeper who has helped him extend cleanups of the river and its tributaries using the energy of volunteers, and groups of employees from local companies. I was thrilled to see that one area cleaned up along Dry Creek was one I had visited on my Healdsburg journey.

The “Garbage Patch Kids”, as volunteers are known, perform weekly cleanups, have created a trash service for homeless camps...all with the help of county services and inspired followers. This is the power of one person.

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Earning trust  

After the Healdsburg Homeless Count, I met another person on an equally powerful mission to effect change.  He was the man sitting to my left who brought the homeless guide to sit next to him. 

Rick Cafferata rose from the ashes of his life to cross the line to the other side, then turn around to serve those who are still living without the shelter of home. He is now employed part time by North Sonoma County Services and one aspect of his job is to reach a helping hand out to people served by this organization.

I spent part of a day with Rick as he went from camp to camp to hand out sandwiches and check up on people. CalTrans had recently moved a small village of tents from their right-of way in order to clean up. People had 72 hours notice to take what they wanted, and leave the rest to be hauled away. Many took their “keep” pile to the other side of the CalTrans fence, waiting until they could return to this convenient place they had established as home.

As Rick and I walked from camp to camp, people responded to him easily, covered the basics of current news, chatted about this and that, and he promised to return with trash bags for their debris, needed information, etc. He said the most important thing is for him to show up. When he says he’s going to do something, or be there, he makes sure that he follows through. Just showing up means a lot toward earning the trust of people he wants to reach.

At one point a young man chased him down. “Look”...he shoved his cell phone for Rick to see. “Here is a picture of my baby girl. They took her away from me, I want to get her back. I need your help. What is your number. I will call you.”

Rick carefully helped him enter his number in the young man’s phone. This was the first time this man had reached out for that would involve drug rehab, which he has to do in order to get his daughter back.

People know that Rick took the path through rehab and that’s why he’s even alive today. Years under the influence of drugs and alcohol had taken his life to where he no longer had family or home. In desperation he was ready to commit suicide when he felt no hope. On the ledge of a bridge he was about to jump from, a woman he knew pulled up and told him to get in her car. She drove him to a rehab facility where he checked in and didn’t come out until he was clean. 

His path to life was a gift from the “Higher Power” Rick has committed to ever since. If he could do it, so can some of the people Rick now serves.

And that’s what Rick hopes will happen for this young man. He and his girlfriend are residents of the tent village that just got removed. Their habit controls their lives and lost them their daughter. Perhaps, and it’s just a maybe, losing their girl to Child Protective Services will be the motivator to take the journey to a clean life. That little girl deserves her parents. Now it’s their turn to give her what she needs.

And in the way life takes full circle, Gina, our homeless guide on the day of the count, turns out to be the grandmother of that little girl. A multi-generational, local family, taken down by drugs to the point where they adapted, see no way out, and surrendered. Maybe that story can now change.  

Signs of Hope 

In Healdsburg there are good-hearted people who are putting time and energy into helping those who want to be helped. One person who is cautiously responding is that little girl’s mother, another is her grandmother. Both agreed to be interviewed as part of a Healdsburg High School project on local homeless people. It takes courage to shine a light on your life, especially when you have lost what others take for granted.

Gina Riner will be reporting for us next month on an amazing project Healdsburg volunteers are putting together to connect homeless people to the home they have lived in for decades. For people who think of Healdsburg as a tourist destination, to see multi-generational locals open their arms to people living on the tracks, under bridges, and in the bushes by creeks, shows the heart of their community. 

Healdsburg is home. These people are taking care of families who are citizens of their village. Who knows where this will lead. That is the wonder of our path through life. We never know what the future holds for us.



Children's View of Homelessness


Thank you for a moving article about the homeless in Healdsburg, Vesta. I appreciate the time and effort you put into both visiting and to shining a light on the "invisible" who live with us. I'm working on a piece from a different angle.

Count blessings. 

Ann Carranza


I came across this page of your site and noticed that you are linking to and other resources for the homeless. I wanted to thank you for these efforts – this is a mission I am deeply involved in as well.. If I may have just a moment of your time, I wanted to talk to you about an important issue among the homeless population – and also suggest an addition to your page.

Homeless individuals face unique challenges with mental health, addiction and recovery.

While there are many unique addiction resources available, none of them are comprehensive and specifically tailored to homeless individuals. After research across the resources available on the web, the AAC team noticed the absence of a centralized resource designed to help understand the basics of mental health, alcohol use and addiction among the homeless and to offer guidance on navigating support systems. They decided to fill this gap of knowledge.

The result is this page:

This page summarizes available governmental, organizational and other resources and makes them easily accessible to those searching for assistance. It include dozens citations of the latest research studies and external resources for homeless individuals seeking mental health and addiction help. We hope that the quality of this page and the importance of the subject matter merits inclusion on your page alongside the other resources you have provided – or elsewhere on your website.

Thank you so much for your time. If you have the chance, please let me know what we need to do to have this page included as a resource. If you are not responsible for modifications to this page, apologies for the miscommunication, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction.

Thank you,

Ashley Knowles