Alliance Redwoods hosting Redwood Gospel Mission’s homeless and those in addiction recovery

Eighty homeless individuals being sheltered by Redwood Gospel Mission who for three weeks were forced to stay indoors to avoid exposure to the new coronavirus are now enjoying an unexpected retreat in a redwood forest near Camp Meeker.

Thanks to an offer by nonprofit Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, some of the people who earlier found shelter at the Santa Rosa mission, as well as men and women in its residential addiction recovery programs, are being treated to an extended stay at the west Sonoma County outdoor education center in an effort to provide greater physical distance between them.

“This was a way to immediately prevent a health crisis from materializing by opening our doors,” Alliance Redwoods Executive Director Jim Blake said. “I have dozens of staff living on-site who can, at a moment’s notice, crank it up and get food service happening and beds made up.”

The move also has freed space at the downtown mission for about 30 additional people in need of shelter through county coordinated care and hospital referrals, Redwood Gospel Mission Executive Director Jeff Gilman said.

Shelter operations have required a delicate hand since the coronavirus began circulating in the region, utilizing health screenings and balancing of efforts to help as many people as possible without rooming them too close together, he said.

Guests of the mission headquarters near Railroad Square so far have been trying to shelter mostly in dormitory-style rooms at four sites in Santa Rosa.

But they have been required to stay put so they don’t risk being exposed on the outside and bringing in the infectious disease to those with whom they share space.

“It is really challenging, which was why we were super grateful for the opportunity to be at Alliance Redwoods, which allowed for those people to be at a proper distance,” Gilman said.

Almost three-quarters of the mission’s guests from different sites were bused to the 100-acre retreat off Bohemian Highway a week ago, offering some their first experience with camp, Blake said.

“These guys got off the bus and thought they’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.

One even called his daughter to verify his recollection he was now at the same spot where she had attended sixth-grade outdoor education, he said.

“You’re going to love camp,” she told him, Blake said.

Those who remained at mission sites in Santa Rosa did so because of work, medical appointments or other reasons they needed to be close to town, Gilman said.

Alliance Redwoods, a religious nonprofit, has long hosted retreats and encampments, as well as outdoor education for public and private schools on its grounds.

It also is the site of Sonoma Canopy Tours, which provides zip-line tours through the forest.

But all of its operations have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving about 120 people without work, including 44 who live on the grounds, he said.

At the same time, Blake heard California Gov. Gavin Newsom speak about the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in homeless encampments and the need to “decompress” populations and realized Alliance Redwoods might help.

His organization previously has invited Redwood Gospel Mission guests to join men’s retreats and has hired graduates from recovery, as well, so they already had a “synergistic” relationship, he said.

So he called Gilman, who recalled Blake saying, “How can we be involved, and how can we meet a need?’?”

The result is homeless individuals are now spread out among some of the 100 cabins at Redwood Alliance, able to walk trails and utilize recreational equipment when they’re not participating in remote recovery meetings, classes and chapel.

The plan is to have mission guests stay on the site until May 3, at least, making adjustments dependent on the status of cases and health orders in Sonoma County.

“We’ve found that lots of people are enjoying the setting,” Gilman said. “We’ve found that a lot of people have never been out to that area before.”

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