Wearing a bright yellow raincoat and looking a little like a Bodega Bay fisherman, John Ruano used a shovel to clear gravel from several narrow trenches that were keeping Camp Michela from flooding.
As residents of the southwest Santa Rosa homeless camp hunkered down for a cold and wet day, Santa’s stand-ins dropped by Monday morning four days before Christmas bearing some much-needed gifts.
Jenny and Len Hirschi of Sebastopol, their 9-year-old granddaughter, Janice Williams, in tow, dropped off blankets and socks for camp residents. Jenny Hirschi said she was inspired to do something for the Camp Michela residents after reading newspaper stories about their plight.
“Part of the reason is I come from a migrant farmworker family and we moved around a lot from job to job,” Hirschi said. “My mother always helped other people who were even less fortunate than we were.”
Hirschi said she put out an email request to friends for blankets and socks and quickly collected 58 blankets, 58 packages of men’s socks and 33 packages of women’s socks. Unable to distribute all the donations — there are only 19 residents at Camp Michela — Hirschi asked camp residents where she could find another homeless camp to donate the rest of the cargo in her van.
Ruano, a camp manager, said visitors have been coming by the camp daily to drop off gifts and food. The camp, located in a gravel lot behind the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road, was set up about a month ago after it vacated its original location on a county-owned lot in west Santa Rosa. The original camp, established in early September, was part of a protest against what activists said was local government’s inaction on homeless issues.
The camp’s latest site falls within the long-awaited Roseland Village neighborhood development and is only temporary, according to homeless advocates and county officials.
“They’ve committed to move off the property no later than early February,” said Jim Leddy, a special projects director with the county Community Development Commission, which manages the property for the county.
Leddy called the camp “unsanctioned” and said campers would likely have to leave before spring.
“We were saying the sooner the better, and we’re trying to facilitate a better situation,” he said.
Carolyn Epple, a co-organizer of the camp, said the residents of Camp Michela were essentially “on standby” as they negotiate with a religious group for another location. She would not specify which religious group because she did not want to hinder the talks.
In the meantime, she said, local residents and volunteers from the community continue to visit the camp and make donations.
“One group is dropping off ponchos this afternoon,” she said. “Another, a friend of the camp who has done a lot for us, made homemade cookies.”
Epple said the camp does not need any more donated clothes. She said campers could use tent heaters and small camping propane bottles.
The encampment was named in honor of Michela Wooldridge, a homeless single mother who was murdered just days before she was to receive a space at the Sam Jones Hall shelter in 2012. Epple, citing statistics from the California Department of Public Health, said an average of about 30 homeless people die in Sonoma County each year.