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GUERNEVILLE — It was sometime after 4 a.m. when deputies found Charles Muth under the footbridge, spitting up blood.

The 67-year-old homeless man, who went by “Buck,” was known among service providers, family and others who lived with him on the streets here as fiercely self-reliant, a protector of others. Yet on this January morning, he’d been yelling for help in the dark, prompting a call to 911.

Paramedics took him by ambulance to Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa, but it was too late. Suffering from flu and pneumonia, he had been camped outside in the cold and rain and had developed widespread infection, organ failure and septic shock, according to medical records. He died the next morning, Jan. 24.

Muth was the second person living on the streets of Guerneville to die in the first three weeks of this year.

The first was Charlyne Bohannon, who died New Year’s Day. A heavy drinker, the 58-year-old woman was found disoriented and unable to rise from the concrete in front of the local Subway shop. She, too, died after reaching the hospital.

Bohannon suffered from a litany of disabling conditions: malnutrition, liver failure, alcohol addiction, schizophrenia, congestive heart failure and Hepatitis C, according to her death certificate. She had lost one arm below the elbow years earlier. The story she told was that she had slept too close to a train track.

People around town more or less watched her final weeks and years play out — her long decline in the open for all to see, alongside other visibly broken individuals. Altogether, 14 people from the lower Russian River homeless community have now died in the past 22 months, according to staff at the local Homeless Healthcare program. The death rate is higher than any other place in the county with a significant homeless population, according to county government records.

Growing problem

The recent deaths have rekindled debate about the difficulties Guerneville and surrounding areas have encountered in settling on and sustaining a strategy to address homelessness. The problem stymies even the county’s large cities, where homeless populations are far greater. But Guerneville, an unincorporated town of about 4,100, and its outskirts now have the largest homeless population, per capita, in the county, according to the most recent countywide census.

The January 2017 count put the unhoused population in the river region at 248 people, more than 8 percent of the county total.

Last year, the region saw the largest increase in homeless numbers — 20 percent — of any place in the county, where homelessness actually declined by 2 percent, according to the 2017 point-in-time survey.

No year-round shelter or homeless service center exists in the community, and the county’s latest plans were soundly rejected last year by a vocal contingent of local residents who raised concerns about public safety and nuisance behaviors in close proximity to a public school and rural neighborhoods.

For the region’s sole local elected representative, county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, in just her second year in office, it’s proved one of the most vexing challenges.

“It’s really tragic that people are losing their lives on the streets of Guerneville,” Hopkins said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well why hasn’t something been done?’ It’s because there is no easy solution.”

Homeless residents here have access to county mental and medical health services, an overnight shelter during the coldest months, and other help provided by public and nonprofit agencies. But the safety net is inadequate for the most vulnerable, officials say.

The recent losses thus carry a particular sting for some town residents.

“It’s slow death out here,” said Greg Kestel, whose downtown office provides a window on the suffering. “We can do better.”

Disparate cases

Muth and Bohannon were among a group of about two dozen highly visible individuals who for many comprise the face of Guerneville’s homeless population. Their presence in the downtown area, often loitering or sleeping in liquor store parking lots, is a continuous source of anger, frustration, disgust and sorrow for residents, merchants and visitors to this perennial tourist destination.

Their relatively high death toll, in such close quarters, is a distressing mark in town that pains those aware of the losses. But a look at the troubled lives of Muth and Bohannon shows just how formidable a public challenge homelessness presents.

In life, the two friends stood in sharp contrast to one another. Muth was a wiry, lucid and dependable figure, according to fellow homeless residents. A counterculture vegetarian, he valued independence but maintained connection with family members, attending large family events several times a year.

Among the unsheltered, he was known for offering assistance to those in need, particularly vulnerable women like Bohannon.

She was a volatile person whose outbursts, friends said, masked a tender, generous disposition but tested the compassion of those who encountered her.

A wife and mother earlier in her 20s, she was estranged from family members and unable to manage the chronic health ailments she suffered. In her final months, passersby could observe visible skin lesions and badly swollen feet.

She shared what little she had with friends, though she seldom had enough clothing or bedding to keep herself warm. Others took advantage of her, stealing money or property, friends said.

Her intoxication led to unsocial behavior that drew unwanted attention. Alcohol, said one downtown resident, Debbie Gulling, seemed to transform Bohannon from a “very sweet and loving” woman when sober into “a different person.”

But by the end, drinking was all she had, friends said. Cheap vodka that was her staple beverage, and drinking and living on the streets, exacted an ever- greater toll on her health. She seemed unable to care that the combination would cost her her life, friends said.

She appeared to suffer from incontinence that friends said kept people at bay as she found it increasingly difficult to stay clean and clothed. Before his death, Muth said he had helped her clean up and change hundreds of times.

But the substance abuse that helped put Bohannon on the streets also provided a means to survive them, observers said.

“They have nothing to look forward to, and if they do, they don’t know what it is,” said Santiago Velasquez, 53, who shared his own experience with alcohol abuse and is homeless.

Deadly existence

The national life expectancy for those who are homeless ranges from 42 to 52 years old, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In Sonoma County overall, the median age at death is 81.

At least 100 homeless individuals — an average of 20 a year — died in the county from 2013 to 2017, most in the 45-to-64-year-old age range, according to the county’s Office of Vital Statistics. There were at least 26 deaths among the county’s homeless population last year, and 24 the year before, though the data only reflects those who could be identified as homeless.

Experts say homeless individuals routinely succumb to the combination of poor nutrition and hygiene, sleep deprivation, untreated disease, substance abuse, and the daily plight of life exposed to the elements and potential mistreatment or violence by others.

Large percentages have disabling conditions to start with — mental illness, chronic health conditions, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other issues that both lead to homelessness and are exacerbated by it.

The homeless existence also is linked to increased rates of infectious disease, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, skin and foot problems, seizures and behavioral health issues, among other problems.

“I think of it as end-stage social dysfunction,” said Jared Garrison-Jakel, a family practice doctor and homeless medical services director at the Russian River Health Center in Guerneville. “It’s a terminal condition.”

A troubled life

Bohannon’s fate seemed obvious to many who watched her decline.

It’s unclear when she arrived in Guerneville, but her record of law enforcement contacts dates to 2003, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The records show 46 arrests for offenses including public intoxication, trespass and various misdemeanors.

She was a fixture downtown, often drinking or panhandling around Third Street, sometimes passed out in a doorway or on the sidewalk, or camped out in the post office before the decision was made to close it overnight.

Born Charlyne Feuillard in San Leandro, she was already battling alcohol addiction as a wife and mother in her 20s, when she worked making circuit boards and briefly ran her own nail salon, according to her ex-husband, Pat Bohannon, of Concord.

The nail business suffered because of her addiction, a family affliction, as did their 10-year marriage, and she seemed resistant to any kind of intervention, her ex-husband said. He said he was unaware his ex-wife suffered from any diagnosed mental illness.

After their divorce, she left home and family behind to live on a kind of commune, Bohannon said. Her path was hard to follow after that, though there were occasional contacts and reports that found their way back to him.

He said Bohannon had been homeless in the East Bay and, perhaps, Sacramento, before fond memories of a family vacation home along the Russian River drew her to Sonoma County. Friends said she had often tried to get into the Villa Grande house and once moved in with a number of friends before she was caught and turned out.

In town, she stayed within close range of the Subway and neighboring MD Liquor and Food store frequented by many downtown homeless. About a block north is the nonprofit health clinic that serves more than 240 homeless residents. Clinic officials would not say if Bohannon was among them, citing privacy laws governing patient medical records.

She sometimes stayed at the winter shelter opened in the local veterans’ hall December through March but preferred to be on her own, friends said.

Friends in the street community remembered her as “beautiful,” “a great woman.” But even they were aware of a temper that could overtake her.

Tim Miller, executive director of the nonprofit West County Community Services, which manages the winter shelter, said unsocial behavior among the homeless often reflects being “cold, wet, uncomfortable and in pain.”

Bohannon, he said, “often was in obvious discomfort.”

Jeff Bridges, co-owner and general manager of the downtown R3 Hotel, said he once saw Bohannon kick a scrawny puppy in a rage and called her out for it. Hours later, in an apparent moment of clarity, Bohannon turned up with a friend and asked him to take the young animal since she was unable to care for it, he said.

That dog, now 5 years old, remains Bridges’ companion and was a source of kinship Bohannon seemed to feel toward Bridges. She would run up and hug him whenever their paths crossed.

“Ultimately, I have to say I think she had a huge heart, and she went through a lot of problems in her life,” Bridges said. “She had a lot of demons she was dealing with. My heart goes out to her.”

An unforeseen loss

Muth’s death, in contrast, stunned his companions. Friends said he appeared reasonably healthy even a day or two before he found himself camped under the footbridge, too weak to walk.

“He was very meticulous about his person and a very keen mind,” said friend David Hays, 74. “It’s totally shocking that he’s gone.”

Born and raised in Baltimore before a new job assignment for his father sent the family west, to Vallejo, in 1966, Muth was the oldest of eight children, all of whom attended Catholic schools, his siblings said.

He grew into a free-spirited, nonconformist, who roamed the nation as a young man and held “a strong desire not to opt into the system,” they said. A resident of Monte Rio for years, he worked as a carpenter and, later, in a glass store. But he chose to live outside after the death, about six years ago, of a longtime girlfriend with whom he had shared a trailer parked off Bohemian Highway.

A thin man with long gray hair and whiskers, he was highly intellectual, known for his chess skills, though he played a lot of cribbage, as well.

He helped pick up trash and looked out for those most in need or at risk in homeless circles, friends said.

“Buck was a force to be reckoned with, in a very peaceful way,” said Kathy Plumb, 63, one of those who said she had benefited from his protection.

Muth’s 86-year-old mother, along with most of his surviving siblings and their families, were among a large group of friends and local service providers who gathered to remember him at a recent memorial service, sharing admiration and affection for him.

“I always thought he was out here by himself,” the youngest brother, Dave Muth, of Sacramento, told the group as he cried. “And I see today that he wasn’t.”

Painful toll

The roll call of 14 Russian River homeless residents who have died since April 2016 has become a rallying cry of late. Those who knew them or helped them want more done to ensure a brighter future is not beyond reach for others.

“Why are we OK with watching them die?” said Jeb Heibel, homeless health care manager for the West County Health Centers.

Hopkins, for her part, said she has been dwelling on a comment made at a recent supervisors’ meeting, when a speaker described access to affordable housing as a question of morality.

“I do feel fundamentally that it’s inhumane to have people dying on the streets,” she said.

In mid-January, three days before Muth fell ill, many in the Russian River homeless community gathered to remember those who’ve died among them. The service was held in the Odd Fellows Hall and hosted by the tiny Redwood Empire branch of the Metropolitan Community Churches.

Daniel Magdalena sang and danced in memory of the deceased, remembering the likes of “Wild Bill,” “King Tut,” “Fisherman Mike,” “Ricky Ricardo” and Charlyne, “the one-armed bandit.”

Mel Wallace, perhaps her closest friend, said the service helped her feel better. Days before she had wept as she recalled the 18 or so people she had seen die prematurely, many addicted to alcohol, like herself.

Dying in their 50s, they had missed out on a third of their lives, she said.

Wallace, 57, knows she is at similar risk but said she does not know a way out.

“I don’t know the door,” she said. “If there was a door, I’d find it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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