David Hays had been homeless for about two years when he got help that turned his life around, including a roof over his head and access to any support he needs to stay on track.
Reliant on Social Security and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the 74-year-old, one-time gardener and odd-jobs man had been unable to compete on his own in Sonoma County’s tight housing market after losing his previous home.
Now and for the past two years he has paid 30 percent of his small income to share a house with five other formerly homeless people, all receiving periodic visits from a social worker who checks in and links them to any services or aid programs they may need.
Hays is one person taken off the streets of Guerneville, where roughly 250 homeless individuals live along the lower Russian River. His is one life put back together against the odds.
“I love living there,” said Hays, a 45-year resident of the area. “It’s working out for me, definitely.”
One county official calls it “quiet work” — the steps that get Hays and others like him into scarce, stable housing — efforts that go on largely under the public radar by people from nonprofits and public agencies chipping away, person-by-person at a problem that confounds many places across the nation.
Any success comes nowhere close to clearing the streets and bridges and river encampments of people too impoverished, too hopeless, too addicted or too sick to find a way out on their own.
But these days, it’s what can be done in Guerneville: interventions tailored to the specific needs of individuals or families, integrated where possible with housing support along with addiction counseling, medical treatment and mental health referrals.
Still, it’s a long way from the grand scheme that for several years guided public debate about the area’s growing and underserved homeless population, as county officials and community leaders struggled to find an acceptable site for a year-round overnight shelter and service center where homeless people could spend their days and connect to help.
The area is one of the only homeless hubs in the county without such a facility. Its wintertime shelter, open December through March in the veterans memorial building, offers beds, restrooms and dinner for up to 50 clients.
But all plans for a year-round homeless facility in the area have been shelved after a proposal to purchase a 9-acre Armstrong Woods Road ranch for that purpose devolved into bitter conflict that divided the town a year ago. The project’s $1.2 million in funding, allocated since 2013, remains untouched.
Evolving federal guidance and policy approaches had something to do with it, shifting focus and public dollars away from short-term homeless shelters like the one sought in Guerneville since 2010.
The latest emphasis is on longer-term housing solutions that include case management, behavioral health and other services for those who most need support, or temporary assistance for less vulnerable people who require minimum help.
But the deaths last month of two longtime homeless residents, Charles “Buck” Muth and Charlyne Bohannon, have heightened attention, renewing debate over how best to tackle an issue that tests the compassion and resources of far larger, wealthier communities.