Russian River area neighbors riled over new homeless housing plan

The proposed purchase of a Guerneville-area home to provide permanent housing for five to 10 currently homeless people has created a new flashpoint in a community deeply divided on how to address the region’s growing problems with homelessness, vagrancy, illegal camping and the health issues that come with it.

At issue is a plan for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission to provide a deferred-payment loan of $950,000 to West County Community Services, a local nonprofit, to buy and fund needed upgrades to a five-bedroom house on Old Cazadero Road in Guernewood Park.

The loan would come from $1.2 million in county funding set aside in 2013 for a planned homeless service center and overnight shelter that has since been abandoned, largely because of public opposition.

The new plan complies with the county’s embrace of the “housing first” philosophy, a nationally adopted best practice.

The philosophy reflects studies showing that people given a stable place to live can more readily address the problems that led to their homelessness and thus are more successful than those who are required to “earn” housing through demonstrations of good behavior.

A caseworker would be available on site for 20 hours a week to help residents begin to bring order to their lives. Residents would be expected to pay rent and eventually might find more independent housing, creating room for someone else to move in.

But deep mistrust - even suspicion - of the process and the players involved, fears of how neighbors could be affected and objections to the cost are just a few of the complaints driving opposition since the proposal was announced 1 1/2 weeks ago in what has been a hurried deal.

“Instead of building consensus, they just try to shove it down your throat,” said Guerneville resident Marcy Cooper, an organizer with Friends & Residents of Guerneville, or FROG.

Advocates on both sides are expected to turn out in force at the Sonoma County supervisors meeting Tuesday, at which the board will debate the loan, which carries a 30-year term and 3 percent interest deferred until revenues from rent are available.

A four-fifths vote is necessary for its approval.

Fundamentally the plan, if approved, is for West County Community Services to lease rooms to vulnerable individuals who have been homeless for at least a year and to provide them with caseworker management for issues related to substance abuse, unemployment, mental or physical health issues and other impediments to a stable life, the agency’s executive director, Tim Miller, said.

The residents would be free to come and go as they please, like anyone else, but would have to comply with basic house rules like common quiet times, getting approval for guests and attendance at house meetings, Miller said.

Drinking in common areas, disruptive behavior and illegal drug use would be prohibited, he said.

But residents would not specifically be screened for other behavioral, alcohol or drug issues, Miller said. The housing first model was developed in part in response to the failure of widespread practices that left many people out in the elements by requiring them to overcome coping mechanisms and demonstrate good behavior before they could earn their way into shelter.

“We’ve got a crisis,” said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Community Development Commission. “Permanent supportive housing is the best way to address chronic homelessness.”

The most recent census of the homeless in Sonoma County, conducted last January, showed a 20 percent rise in the number of people in the lower Russian River area who were experiencing homelessness at that point in time, an increase of 20 percent since a year earlier.

Emergency medical personnel, law enforcement, residents and business owners are all aware of the impact to Guerneville’s downtown area, as well as the river watershed and other outdoor areas where littering is a significant problem.

West County Community Services has operated a seasonal winter shelter in the Guerneville Veterans Building in recent years, though it functions only at night and only for four months a year, such that residents remain outdoors at all other times.

Twelve homeless men died over one recent 15-month period, excluding the time during which the winter shelter was open, when there were no deaths, local health officials say.

But many in the community have been angered by the presence and conduct of homeless people in the area, some of whom have substance abuse and significant mental health issues.

There have been assaults, damage to businesses and a constant battle to clean up after those who leave their garbage and even waste behind.

When county officials proposed the purchase of a ranch house on Armstrong Woods Road earlier this year for conversion to a day-time homeless service center with emergency shelters and other amenities, many in the community rebelled and eventually convinced freshman 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins to move for abandonment of the controversial proposal.

Hopkins, who learned of the alternative housing proposal last week, said she was frustrated by the pace imposed on such discussions by the realities of an open real estate market and wished their could be more time to vet the new plan.

But she also said she’s aware of the seasonal timeline - “that winter is coming and we have hundreds of people out on the street.”

She noted that the county’s move toward a housing model to address the problem was driven in part by community opposition to a homeless day center.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand and will homelessness away,” Hopkins said in a statement released Thursday. “Winter is coming, and people are suffering. We must not dehumanize homeless residents. They are people, just like us.”

Several other examples of permanent supportive housing, operated by WCCS and other agencies, already exist in Guerneville.

If not for needed county approval of the loan, the nonprofit agency legally could proceed to acquire the house and move people in without notice, services providers said.

“My agency at the county,” Van Vliet said, “is responsible for deploying resources in a way that helps mitigate the homeless crisis, and one of the things we do is we finance housing. I saw in good faith an opportunity to finance the acquisition of a house that could be used for permanent supportive housing, and have a capable nonprofit partner who, by the way, I will keep a close eye on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or 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. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette