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Armstrong Woods Loungagin Property OFF the list of potential Homeless Services Centers
Armstrong Woods Loungagin Property OFF the list of potential Homeless Services Centers

Guerneville Homeless Services Center Site Search on Hold

May 2, 2017
by Vesta Copestakes


Fifth District Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins announced today that she will not pursue the purchase of any property to serve as a homeless day service shelter in the lower Russian River area at this time.  Instead, the County will strengthen coordination and funding for health, human, and public safety services in the lower Russian River area, and any future service center location discussions will be conducted in collaboration with the community.

The 2016 Homeless Count identified 193 homeless persons in the Lower Russian river area. Guerneville’s current homeless shelter operates for four months in the winter in downtown Guerneville at the Veterans Memorial Hall.

After hosting two town halls with over 1,000 participants, Supervisor Hopkins called together county public safety, health, and social services officials to strategize a response to the public concerns raised through the engagement process.

“The lower Russian River community has clearly shown their passion for a real solution,”Supervisor Hopkins. “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 County strategy will focus on helping people find housing.

Subject to the upcoming County Budget Process, increased services could include behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, case management, and general health care. The County will also be working with the community and public safety officials to reduce crime in the region and increase patrols. These actions will not preclude future efforts at a service center location.

Ultimately this is good news for the community since wherever this services center is located, it has an impact on personal as well as business health. Guerneville has been impacted by a greater number of homeless individuals than most communities, in part because it is located in a rural area with the benefits of a river where people can camp riverside and be relatively hidden by forests. The downtown has plenty of places to obtain food and supplies within an easy walking distance of campsites.

The negative impact of these camps is evident in cleanups that have become more and more frequent as locals work to keep riverbanks clean of trash and debris. Through massive volunteer efforts, camps were cleaned up before winter floods, but now that the river has returned to normal flow, camps are once again populating river banks.

The proposed services center is an enhancement of current health services offered to the community, which includes homeless individuals who seek health support. The challenge is finding a location for year-round housing and whether that housing should be a dry or wet shelter to serve individuals with drug and alcohol addictions. 

Many communities have found that offering housing in a wet shelter, where substance abuse is tolerated while a person seeks support, offers the greatest opportunity for solving long-term problems and addictions. The financial impact to communities having to deal with addictive behavior has been astronomically expensive in all ways. Emergency medical expenses, law enforcement, and loss of business because of offensive behavior is just part of the expense. But it goes beyond financial impact. People can feel compassion for a person who is homeless and down on their luck, but it's very challenging to feel compassionate toward a person passed out on the street, offending passersby with bad behavior, or breaking laws.

As the county continues the decades-long search for a solution, locals are becoming involved in greater numbers. One of the most evident changes in getting people involved is social networking on the internet. People communicate with each other, pass ideas around, share photos and incidents of offensive behavior, and also share stories of people with real need who would benefit from these proposed services. The single mother living under the bridge with kids in school is an example of someone who people reach out to help. The drunk asleep in front of a business who soiled his pants has the opposite reaction.

Now that the proposed site on Armstrong Woods Road has been rejected by the community, people need to keep talking. Each community has to find what works for them and there is no universal solution that fits every town. Guerneville is unique so needs a unique solution. In the meantime, summer tourist season is upon this town and the offensive behavior downtown will impact this community in more ways than just being awful to experience. 

Unincorporated areas fall under different laws and law enforcement procedures than cities with their own police departments. There are no loitering laws that can be enforced. Citizens are afraid to engage in direct conflict with a person under the influence to tell them to move along because there is no predicting what kind of reaction they will receive. This has to be handled by law enforcement. 

As fire season begins the fear of camp fires getting out of control is also an issue. River Community Advocates wrote an entire column on what property owners can do to protect themselves against illegal camps and the potential of fire hazards. Keeping camps off private property is one way citizens can have some control over this situation. Downtown businesses are seeking their own solutions as well. 

As the community continues to discuss options, every action people can take to protect their community while serving people in need is welcome in the discussion. If you have ideas that are constructive potential solutions, please COMMENT here. 

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