GUERNEVILLE — It was sometime after 4 a.m. when deputies found Charles Muth under the footbridge, spitting up blood.
The 67-year-old homeless man, who went by “Buck,” was known among service providers, family and others who lived with him on the streets here as fiercely self-reliant, a protector of others. Yet on this January morning, he’d been yelling for help in the dark, prompting a call to 911.
Paramedics took him by ambulance to Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa, but it was too late. Suffering from flu and pneumonia, he had been camped outside in the cold and rain and had developed widespread infection, organ failure and septic shock, according to medical records. He died the next morning, Jan. 24.
Muth was the second person living on the streets of Guerneville to die in the first three weeks of this year.
The first was Charlyne Bohannon, who died New Year’s Day. A heavy drinker, the 58-year-old woman was found disoriented and unable to rise from the concrete in front of the local Subway shop. She, too, died after reaching the hospital.
Bohannon suffered from a litany of disabling conditions: malnutrition, liver failure, alcohol addiction, schizophrenia, congestive heart failure and Hepatitis C, according to her death certificate. She had lost one arm below the elbow years earlier. The story she told was that she had slept too close to a train track.
People around town more or less watched her final weeks and years play out — her long decline in the open for all to see, alongside other visibly broken individuals. Altogether, 14 people from the lower Russian River homeless community have now died in the past 22 months, according to staff at the local Homeless Healthcare program. The death rate is higher than any other place in the county with a significant homeless population, according to county government records.
The recent deaths have rekindled debate about the difficulties Guerneville and surrounding areas have encountered in settling on and sustaining a strategy to address homelessness. The problem stymies even the county’s large cities, where homeless populations are far greater. But Guerneville, an unincorporated town of about 4,100, and its outskirts now have the largest homeless population, per capita, in the county, according to the most recent countywide census.
The January 2017 count put the unhoused population in the river region at 248 people, more than 8 percent of the county total.
Last year, the region saw the largest increase in homeless numbers — 20 percent — of any place in the county, where homelessness actually declined by 2 percent, according to the 2017 point-in-time survey.
No year-round shelter or homeless service center exists in the community, and the county’s latest plans were soundly rejected last year by a vocal contingent of local residents who raised concerns about public safety and nuisance behaviors in close proximity to a public school and rural neighborhoods.
For the region’s sole local elected representative, county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, in just her second year in office, it’s proved one of the most vexing challenges.
“It’s really tragic that people are losing their lives on the streets of Guerneville,” Hopkins said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well why hasn’t something been done?’ It’s because there is no easy solution.”