Two months into my first stint as an elected official, I’ve faced down four floods, a half-dozen major road failures, dozens of mudslides, thousands of evacuation advisories, Occidental’s wastewater and a creek overtaking Green Valley Road — all in my district. Now I find myself embroiled in a contentious land-use issue smack dab in the middle of a town that helped me win the election.
The town is Guerneville, where rural homelessness has been a thorn in the side of the community for decades. Over the past two weeks, a solution proposed by community members and currently under consideration by the county has brought that thorn into sharp relief. Suddenly, the topic of homelessness is endemic, surfacing everywhere in the lower river, from coffee house chatter to the marquee of the Rio Theater.
The proposal, which will be considered by the community and ultimately the Board of Supervisors, involves creating a shelter, a service center and supportive housing on a 10-acre rural horse property located less than a half-mile from Guerneville Elementary School. The property is one of the few in Guerneville that could support a small, village-like development to provide housing for the homeless, and it’s one of the few properties that isn’t in the floodplain or filled with buildings falling apart from decades of neglect. Real estate opportunities in the river area are few and far between. The proposed property is, in fact, beautiful: a barn and ranch-style home that back up to a redwood-filled canyon.
On Friday, an orange, spray-painted sign was splashed across the property’s fence. “LYNDA LISTEN,” it read, addressed, in all caps, to me. “NOT IN OUR TOWN.”
The phrase “not in our town” rubbed me the wrong way. After all, “not in our town” is what white Southerners told black people after the Civil War and continued to tell them through the civil rights movement. “Not in our town” is what straight people told gay people during the AIDS epidemic. “Not in our town” is what happened in Billings, Montana in the early 1990s, when someone lobbed a cinder block into the bedroom window of a Jewish boy, kick-starting a spiraling series of hate crimes.
I wonder if the author of the sign did much thinking about what is happening in our town. If he or she did, the sign might have read:
In our town, homeless children attend Guerneville Elementary School.
In our town, a young girl celebrated her ninth birthday in a tent — her only home — by the Russian River.
In our town, homeless residents die at a rate of one human being per month.
In our town, families are afraid to walk down the street at night, and residents step over drunks and drug addicts as they make their way to the ATM.
In our town, something needs to change.
Is a horse property on Armstrong Woods Road the solution to all of Guerneville’s ills? Will we save everyone, house all the homeless and forever rid the streets of ne’er-do-wells?
Of course not. But something needs to change, and change starts with a community conversation about possible solutions.
I’m not saying the current proposal is perfect. I’ll be the first to admit that there are valid concerns that need to be addressed. That’s why I’m looking forward to discussing the current proposal and all possible solutions at a town hall style meeting, which will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Guerneville Elementary School.