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Camp for homeless opens in Guerneville, offering refuge to 25 people during pandemic

Blue-trimmed, gray tents arranged in rows across an asphalt park-and-ride lot in Guerneville are expected by week’s end to offer refuge to 25 homeless people seeking a safe place to wait out the next few months of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of what are now five sites around the county where unhoused individuals have been provided opportunities to shelter in place in hotel rooms, trailers and tents, the new COVID Navigation Center opened Tuesday with 16 residents relocated from the Veterans War Memorial building a short distance away.

Four more people moved in Wednesday, and the last five or six are expected by Friday, said Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services, which manages both sites.

“We just served breakfast for the first time,” Miller announced Wednesday morning after residents spent their first night in the camp. “We’re doing everything for the first time.”

The site is a collaboration between West County Community Services, the West County Health Centers and the County of Sonoma, through its Community Development Commission, and is intended to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable homeless individuals.

But the agencies also are hopeful that onsite housing navigation services will help guide at least some residents into more stable housing during the time they are sheltered there.

Where usually they would be out on the streets each day and forced to move place to place by night, the camp offers a place to be 24/7, respite from the exhausting daily grind that usually occupies those who live on the street, allowing, organizers hope, an opportunity for them to consider life beyond it.

“We have a person whose sole job there is a housing navigator,” Miller said. “Her sole job is to work with the people there, and we expect there’s going to be more than 25 (people served) because we expect people to come in and leave.”

A supervisor/security staffer also will remain onsite overnight, and no drug or alcohol use will be tolerated on-site, though residents are free to leave when they like. They cannot return until morning if they leave at night, however. Quiet hours also will be enforced.

The camp provides a permanent address and greater ease in continued communication necessary to help people access social services and other assistance for which they are eligible, Miller said. Residents also were to be treated to regular nursing visits and medical oversight.

For Alice Ogilvie, 51, it also means that if she needs a nap, she can zip up her tent and lie down without fear of being told to move along.

“Most of us, because we’re chronically homeless, it’s moving from place to place to place to place. It’s physically stressful. It’s emotionally stressful. It’s spiritually stressful,” she said. “So having a place where we can be 24 hours a day, it’s a godsend for us. And I’m sure it’s a godsend for the people of the river, too, because we’re not all out there just wandering around.”

Ogilvie is among a group of people who had been staying at the so-called “winter shelter” that usually runs through March at the veterans building. The county extended shelter operations month-by-month this year in recognition of the pandemic and the desire to try to provide a place of vulnerable homeless people to shelter in place while the virus was spreading.

But its duration, and unsuitable conditions at the memorial building, which gets very hot during the summer months and is only open from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day, prompted county officials to look for something else, transferring the $60,000 a month spent on the veterans hall to the new site, with an extra $12,000 for setup.

The current site, chosen after Riverfront Regional Park was rejected in part because of fire risk, will be in use until Dec. 1, when the winter shelter reopens.

The site is modeled after a similar camp operated by the city of Santa Rosa and Catholic Charities at the Finley Community Center, where 54 people are currently staying, according to Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

It is similar in concept to an outdoor shelter site called Los Guillicos Village that was set up east of Santa Rosa by the county after a sprawling encampment was cleared from the Joe Rodota Regional Trail in January.

When the coronavirus began to spread broadly in the United States, the county also leased student housing at Sonoma State University for vulnerable homeless individuals until July and arranged, as well, for trailers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, rooms at the Astro Motel in Santa Rosa and cabins at Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds in Camp Meeker.

The Guerneville camp is right off the north side of Highway 116, in a parking area screened from view by shade cloth. It has brand new 10-foot-by-10-foot tents with cots, sleeping bags and chairs for each resident. Meals will be provided by volunteers and the Guerneville Senior Center. Used from time to time for unsanctioned camping, it was cleaned up in advance of the new settlement, and a fair amount of garbage hauled away by West County Community Services.

Two large port-a-potties and hand-washing stations have been moved from other locations in town to the camp, and residents will be allowed usual shower times at the veterans building.

Neighbors have expressed apprehension, nonetheless, not least Taylor Poff, whose home of 31 years is just off the rear corner of the park-and-ride and his front door about 100 feet from the camp.

Poff said he feels the consultation and communication with neighbors over the six or seven weeks of planning for the camp has been lacking. He also objects to what he says is the conversion of Guerneville into a “rehab zone” without sufficient law enforcement or accountability.

“We’re pretty much resigned. The camp is there. It is what it is,” he said. “Now that they’ve moved in, we‘re waiting to see what really happens.”

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

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