Lives cut short in Santa Rosa trail camp reflect grim toll of homelessness
George Somersall was a music lover, a break dancer, a caring uncle - and the type to win $2 at a casino and carry on like a lottery winner, said his brother, Keith Faber.
He was a risk taker who wasn’t afraid of a bar fight, Faber said, and “he was fun no matter what the circumstances were.”
He also lived with HIV for nearly three decades, and his struggles with the disease intensified when he became homeless a few years ago after his mother lost the home where they’d been living, Faber said.
“He was very tough, but he wasn’t made for that type of life,” Faber said of his older brother.
Faber and his children lived with Somersall along the Joe Rodota Trail behind the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road after losing their home in the 2017 fires. When they finally found a new place to live in February, Somersall - whose nickname was “Moosho,” given to him by his grandmother, a Dry Creek Pomo member - would sometimes stay with them, eating more than seemingly possible for his small frame, Faber said.
But Somersall had started using drugs while homeless, Faber said, and his living situation and preexisting illness combined to take a heavy toll.
The fan of AC/DC and Tupac who also listened to country and techno music died on Sept. 25 at the age of 51. He was found in his tent along the Joe Rodota Trail.
“He loved everybody on the trail,” Faber said.
Somersall was one of three homeless people, all men, to die in 2019 along the Joe Rodota Trail, where a large encampment has become entrenched along county parkland in west Santa Rosa.
Their deaths are a reflection of the grim toll that years without permanent shelter can exact on individuals, including shortened lifespans that are all too common across Sonoma County’s homeless population of 3,000 people.
People without stable housing live about 25 years less, on average, than those with homes, according to a 2019 survey of Sonoma County’s homeless population, which cited a national study from 2008.
Two-thirds of local homeless people without regular access to shelter reported at least one health condition, most commonly drug or alcohol abuse, as well as psychiatric problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities. Like Somersall, nearly 90% of survey respondents said they had been living in the county before becoming homeless.
“It’s difficult to get heath care for conditions that have nothing to do with being homeless, and the stress of homelessness causes and exacerbates illnesses,” Adrienne Lauby, an advocate with the Homeless Action group, said in an email. “A homeless person dies a little bit every day.”
The most recent recorded death on the trail was on Nov. 18, when 68-year-old James Jones was found dead in his tent, apparently from natural causes and with no signs of foul play, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department’s preliminary investigation.
Jones had known medical conditions and appeared to have been dead for more than a day before he was discovered by a neighboring camper, police said. A coroner’s investigation into his death remains open, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Somersall was found Sept. 25 in his own tent by a cousin, according to the police department. A coroner’s investigation determined he died of an accidental overdose.
Though Faber remembered his brother as musical and energetic, Somersall showed a different side of his personality to Scott Wagner, a local homeless activist associated with the Homeless Action group.
He was a “really, really sweet man,” Wagner said, who was picked on because he was gay. He was quiet, easy going, and wise - a friend whose death came as a surprise, like so many others, in the homeless community.
“Every once in a while, somebody leaves,” Wagner said, “and it’s always a shock.”
The third man, Michael Spielberg, was found dead by a security guard in the early hours of March 31 along the trail behind the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road. Spielberg, 38, who appeared to have hanged himself, was believed by police to be homeless, although it was unclear if he lived on the Joe Rodota Trail at the time.
Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, a leading local homeless services provider, had “really good relationships” with Somersall and Jones, both of whom had been in and out of shelters, said Jennielynn Holmes, the chief program officer for Catholic Charities. She said the agency did not have a record of working with Spielberg.
“Some people, they’re ready the moment we talk to them to get into housing, and sometimes it takes two, three years before they’re at that point,” Holmes said.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to consider setting up a temporary shelter for 60 people at the Los Guilicos campus or the county government complex and buying a pair of homes, in Santa Rosa and Cotati, to house up to 20 others.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she didn’t want the deaths to be seen in isolation, noting that people without shelter have died in the lower Russian River area in her district and elsewhere around the county. To her, such deaths underscore the importance of coupling housing and health care.
Given a chance to speak to the loved ones of those who died, “I would say what I’ve been saying to everyone about the subject, which is that we need to do better,” she said.
“Human beings deserve better, and I don’t want to be part of a society where we consistently allow people to fall through the cracks.”
Somersall was publicly, if briefly, memorialized last year with a one-sentence obituary published via Daniels Chapel of the Roses. His memory lives on in his brother’s home, where he was loved by Faber’s children, where his picture graces the middle of the family dinner table, and where he has made his presence felt, Faber said.
“He’s actually walked right through me,” Faber said. “I could feel the cold air.”