Recent rains left puddles and patches of mud in the tent city, a southwest Santa Rosa encampment of 130 people surrounded by chain link fences with a low skyline of bright blue tarps.
The dozen or so members of the Elsie Allen High School Interact Club waited in the Dollar Tree parking lot Sunday afternoon, glancing nervously toward the encampment known as Camp Michela, or Remembrance Village, the same 7-acre site Sonoma County officials want to empty March 23 to build a 175-unit apartment complex and public plaza.
Doug Gibson, the students’ adviser, had asked them to come up with a project. They wanted to do something with the homeless.
So they raised more than $600 selling candy bars, researched what supplies were most needed, packed 20 gallon-sized baggies with toiletries, filled another 20 with food and another 20 with feminine hygiene products, along with some thick socks and zip-up hooded sweatshirts, and met in Roseland.
Before the teens ventured off into the encampment in teams of four, Gibson asked them to think about their motives behind the act of charity.
“What are your values, what are your ideals behind this?” Gibson asked. “A lot of this is just helping their daily needs, we’re not going to solve homelessness today.”
James O’Rourke was the first person in camp to welcome the students, meeting them in the parking lot.
He lives at Sam Jones Hall, a homeless shelter run by Catholic Charities. Betty Banda, who lives in the encampment, was friendly and allayed some of the hesitancy felt by a few students.
They walked through the narrow pathways between shelters made of tents, tarps, milk crates and shipping pallets, through both the older and newer sections of the encampment. Some residents either weren’t around or didn’t want to come out of their tents; most were curious about the teens and about what they had to offer.
Banda said she’d never seen a group of high school students come through before. She then reminded a group of men to be on their best behavior with young guests walking around.
“It’s really nice to have young people here,“ Banda said while holding a bag of toiletries she received from the students. “It’s important for them to see things like this.”
Students struck up conversations with residents of the encampment with the encouragement of their advisor. A member of the Sunrise Rotary Club that sponsors the Interact Club reminded some students to introduce themselves while handing out supplies.
Many residents were happy to share their stories and show how they’ve organized their lives in absence of permanent shelter.
“It’s a community, they have their own support systems,” said Daniela Gomez, a 16-year-old junior who’d never been inside a homeless encampment. “I imagined, but I didn’t realize they were like family here. It’s good to help people because I’m pretty privileged to have a house to go home to at night.”