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Sonoma County to establish Guerneville homeless camp

Public officials and service providers in western Sonoma County are working to establish a temporary camp to take in homeless people from the Guerneville area, advancing plans for what would be the third outdoor shelter site opened this year across the county for homeless individuals.

The plan, set in motion by officials due to the pandemic and its specific risks for the homeless, is to set up widely spaced tents for at least 25 people, mostly from the downtown core, with medical help, housing navigation and other services meant to safeguard a vulnerable population .

But the preferred location for the so-called COVID-19 Navigation Center ― the 5 ½-acre Guerneville River Park on the south side of the Russian River ― has been deemed unsuitable by Sonoma County Fire District Fire Marshal Cyndi Foreman, who announced Monday that concerns about fire risk, emergency access and water supply issues made it unsafe.

That leaves the alternate site, a county-owned park-and-a-ride lot off the north edge of Highway 116, just west of Safeway and Mill Street.

That lot is “a more challenging site,” said west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, and one with less aesthetic appeal than the shaded, woodsy park that was initially preferred.

“But if this is what’s functional and green-lighted…” she said, trailing off. “We are in an emergency situation.”

The proposed camp would be modeled after a larger outdoor shelter established in the parking lot at Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Center last month, as well as Los Guilicos Village, a site of tiny homes created in January for some of the people removed from a sprawling encampments on the Joe Rodota Trail.

The Guerneville camp would have a hand-washing station, restrooms and onsite, around-the-clock supervision. It would close Dec. 1, when the annual winter shelter opens at the Veterans Memorial Building in Guerneville.

Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services, which would manage the camp, said a primary goal is “to provide our vulnerable local citizens without homes, the same opportunity for safety that we all have, those of us that are housed, during COVID-19.”

"The number one thing is this is the worst public health disaster in 100 years and the standing order is to shelter in place, and the folks without shelter have no place to shelter in place,“ Miller said.

And while efforts have been made to establish temporary housing for at-risk homeless people in other parts of the county, he said, “we need to do something in west county, too.”

As recently as three years ago, Guerneville and its outskirts had the largest local homeless population, per capita, countywide, with a death rate among homeless people that was also higher than anywhere else in Sonoma County. The estimated population has dropped since then, from 248 people to 211, according to the point-in-time census from 2019, the last available tally.

Attempts to establish a homeless service center and year-round shelter in the Guerneville area met with stiff public resistance, confounding the efforts of Hopkins and others to develop a longer-term solution.

Now, homeless individuals are among those especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions that put them at risk of complications and poor outcomes, said Jason Cunningham, a family physician and chief executive officer for the nonprofit West County Health Centers.

While ongoing coronavirus screening and outreach efforts indicate a high level of awareness and concern in the population, most are not in a position to maintain physical distance or proper hygiene.

An outbreak in the homeless population would likely spread very rapidly within those circles and to the wider community ― a threat that has suddenly become more urgent, given news last week of several cases detected during testing at encampments in Santa Rosa, Cunningham said.

Hopkins and Miller said at least 20 homeless individuals in the county are now reportedly COVID-positive, though those figures had yet to emerge in the county coronavirus reports. County Health Officer Sundari Mase on Friday said at least eight members of the homeless population had tested positive. She has yet to update that figure.

Officials are nonetheless uniformly concerned about exposure in the community and the risk of rapid transmission. And given the frequent movement of individuals between areas of the county, the border between one town and another, one shelter or another, one encampment and another, “is meaningless,” Cunningham said.

“It isn’t just about taking care of them,” he added, “but the risk of spread is significant. And nobody can do this alone. We just can’t do it.”

Guerneville, like many communities, has long struggled with the limits of public resources and available locations for homeless services. The county’s last major bid for a year-round shelter hit a wall of opposition from local residents concerned about public safety and nuisance behaviors in close proximity to a public school and rural neighborhoods.

“We have to stop saying, ’no,’ ” Miller said. “We have to start saying, ’yes.’ ”

In the meantime, West County Community Services and West County Health Centers have continued to tend to the population, providing outreach and medical support, along with a variety of other services.

Miller, whose organization runs the winter shelter at the Veterans Building under a county contract, would operate the new homeless camp, in partnership with the West County Health Centers.

In recent weeks, they have partnered to move 14 elderly and medically vulnerable individuals from the streets to a county alternative care site at Sonoma State University. Two more people are going Wednesday, Miller said.

Residents of the new camp would include some of the 10 to 18 people who have been allowed to remain at the veterans hall past the usual March 31 closure of the winter shelter because of the pandemic emergency.

Miller said during a public meeting last week that he hopes to persuade some of those who regularly pass their days on and around Main Street, to join, as well.

He said he would consult Cunningham about other individuals who might fit any camp slots that are left.

If the plan goes well, there might be a possibility of housing up to 30 people, Miller said, though that was before it became clear the park was not an option.

A $60,000 monthly budget --- the same amount used to operate the nighttime winter shelter ― would be stretched to operate the new camp under the county’s plan.

Hopkins said there could be some additional cost associated with extending electricity and water supply to the park-and-ride lot, as well.

“It is unusual to shift the locations, but it’s an odd world we’re living in right now,” Hopkins said. “But we need to do something. We’re seeing it, unfortunately, take off in our unsheltered population.”

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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