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Sonoma County Gazette
Guerneville Homeless Downtown

Guerneville Winter Shelter:
Can We Do Better?

Sep 26, 2017


By Jennifer Wertz and Mark Emmett

As the summer ends, we look forward and begin to think about our winter homeless shelter, which is slated to open again in downtown Guerneville at the Vets Hall on December 1st, and remain open until March 31st of next year. The winter shelter will once again open its doors at night to provide a dry place to sleep, a hot meal, and showers for about 30 unsheltered adults (based on last year’s average occupancy), until they have to leave each morning.

West County Community Services (WCCS) is the local service provider who has traditionally been selected as the shelter operator, for which the county will pay them $147,208 for shelter operations this winter, a 2.9%+/- increase in funding over the previous year, according to a document obtained from Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC). According to Margaret Van Vliet, the Director of the CDC, who confirmed the funding amount, the funds are paid to cover the costs of staff, food, sleeping materials, showers, cleaning supplies, storage containers, etc., with $30,000 of that funding being paid back to the county for rent of the shelter space for the four months it is open. Based on those figures, the rent breaks down to $7,500 per month, and the other costs break down to about $29k per month, or a total of about $1,200 per month per person based on last year’s average occupancy rate. WCCS also solicits donations for things like blankets, towels, and volunteers to prepare and serve food at the Vets Hall, and has reported that sleeping mats are being provided by Palm Drive Health Care District this year.

In July 2010, County officials asked staff to find a permanent solution to address homelessness in the Lower Russian River Area. In response to the County’s request, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC) established the River Area Shelter and Downtown (RASAD) Task Group. The RASAD Task Group was comprised of local residents and representatives from downtown businesses, social service agencies and County government. The RASAD Task Group met regularly beginning in March 2011, participating in nineteen Task Group meetings and two community meetings. There were many sites and shelter models reviewed throughout the meetings, which ultimately resulted in the seasonal “behavior-based” nighttime shelter at the Vets Hall location. 

The Guerneville winter shelter is a “behavior-based” model, meaning there is no sobriety requirement to be admitted to the shelter; rather behavior is the criteria used to determine if someone is admitted. The 2011 RASAD Task Group Final Recommended Report recommended a shelter code of conduct that stated no violence, threats, drug or alcohol use, stealing, vandalism, weapons, sexual harassment, use of racial or discriminatory slurs, or bothering children would be tolerated.  The recommended consequence for any violation of the shelter code of conduct was expulsion from the shelter.

The RASAD report also outlined a downtown neighborhood code of conduct on pages 39 and 40 that stated:

  The Shelter & Services Program strives to be a good neighbor to all of our neighbors. Complaints by our neighbors will be taken seriously (see The Shelter & Services Program neighborhood Addendum.)

  Possession of a shopping cart is considered theft and will be reason for loss of all privileges.   

  Loitering in the Shelter & Services Program Neighborhood is not permitted at any time.

•  Panhandling by members of the Shelter & Services Program is not permitted at any time.

  Littering anywhere in the community is not permitted.   

  The Shelter & Services Program neighborhood is the area surrounding the Shelter & Services Program property.We value our relationship with our neighbors and strive to address any issues that might arise. There is no loitering allowed in the Shelter & Services Program neighborhood. Loitering includes sitting on the curbs, lawns, behind buildings etc. of businesses and streets in the neighborhood. There will be aNeighborhood Watch that ensures that the Shelter & Services Program continues to be a good neighbor. This watch group includes the residents and staff of the Shelter & Services Program, and the businesses and residents of the neighborhood. When an incident is reported in the neighborhood, Shelter & Services Program staff will attempt to identify the person involved and let them know the effect they are having on the neighborhood. If the person is not responsive to the concerns of the neighborhood, that person will lose privileges at the Shelter & Services Program.

Many people who live or work in the Guerneville area, or come to visit and support our local economy, complain that they frequently see blatant violations of the downtown code of conduct recommendations and other state/county laws on a regular basis throughout the downtown area, especially in the winter while the shelter is open. There are numerous and frequent complaints made to the Sheriff’s department, and on social media and travel review sites, for things like people being passed out on the sidewalks or in parking lots, open drinking and drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, nudity, loitering, thefts, vandalisms, threats and assaults, public urination and defecation, and lots of trash being left around downtown and elsewhere else. 

Many community members and downtown business owners/workers say they would be less resistant to a homeless shelter and services being located within the community, if the folks who are being provided a shelter and services were expected more to comply with the downtown code of conduct recommendations, and the law in general.   

What happens in spring?Another issue that came up last year when the shelter closed at the end of its season is - where do these folks relocate to when the shelter closes? An April of 2017 article in the Sonoma West Times stated that WCCS handed out tents and sleeping bags to the folks leaving the shelter to camp, because they didn’t know where they could go. The problem with that is that the community has a huge issue with trespassing and illegal encampments on private property (and county-owned property). The trash, water pollution, and fire hazards that emerge as a result of those illegal encampments are a major problem within the community that is well known and documented. There are many year-round shelters in various parts of Sonoma County from Cloverdale to Sonoma. It would be nice to see a few more established in larger cities like Healdsburg and Sebastopol, but some of the existing year-round shelters have immediate availability on a day-to-day basis, while others have waiting lists from a couple of weeks to a few months. 

Our community has been working on this issue for many years, while our homeless population has increased about 20% from 2016 to 2017 per the most recent HUD Point-In-Time Count statistics.  We know we need more affordable housing, and more available residential treatment facilities beds for substance abuse and mental health issues, but while we work on that, maybe we can do a better job at managing things within our community in the mean time? Maybe this year we can do better, for the good of the entire community, as well as the folks who need the help? Maybe we can work on enforcing the RASAD recommendations regarding the neighborhood code of conduct to help alleviate the concerns of the local residents and businesses? Maybe we can think ahead, and get folks signed-up on those shelter waiting lists? Maybe we can enforce the law, and protect the rights of all of the members of the community, but also encourage and help unsheltered folks to move on to a legal year-round shelter, in a place where there is the infrastructure and there are the services designed to help them get out of the liquor store parking lots and bushes on the river banks, and get their lives back on track?

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 FB pages. You can also contact Mark Emmett at 707-529-0534 (Guerneville) or Chuck Ramsey at 707-239-1639 (Monte Rio).

 ussian River Community Advocates


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