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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.

“You cannot allow this to just keep on going how it is,” said Jeff Bridges, co-owner and general manager at The R3 Hotel in downtown Guerneville. “It’s ridiculous.”

Flashpoint for town

Guerneville, home to 4,100 residents, and the surrounding Russian River area has the highest rate of homelessness in Sonoma County. It accounts for less than 1 percent of the county’s population but more than 8 percent of its homeless individuals.

The town’s median income is just shy of $47,000, compared to $66,833 for Sonoma County as a whole, according to the U.S. Census.

That may be one factor in the growing number of people becoming homeless in the lower Russian River region, where the homeless population spiked by 20 percent last year. At the same time, the countywide figure, which peaked at 4,539 individuals in 2011, continued to fall, reaching 2,835.

For the entrepreneurs and merchants who have sought to breathe new life into the town’s tourism-based economy, the issue is especially galling. They describe routine encounters with public intoxication and drug use, litter-filled campsites, public toileting and frequent disregard for behavioral norms, all of it hindering economic vitality.

The timeline of recent setbacks is well known in town.

After a series of downtown fires broke out during the 2015 Christmas season, including two arson fires — one of which gutted the downtown health clinic — residents became intently focused on the issue, angrily speaking out about mounting public safety and nuisance concerns, though no evidence surfaced that a homeless individual was responsible for the fires.

About 400 people turned out at a public meeting January 2016, many berating public officials for doing too little to rein in the problem.

Last spring, the proposed Armstrong Woods Road ranch purchase provided a similar flash point, launching several new neighborhood groups, political signs and harsh words. Opponents noted the site’s proximity to the local grade school and homes, as well as fears that augmenting services would draw more homeless people to the region.

At one point, someone threw the severed heads of several wild boars onto the property in apparent protest. An earlier proposal to use an old tavern and inn west of Guerneville, though less controversial, evoked similar blowback.

Then last fall, a large outcry erupted when the county considered financing the purchase of a five-bedroom home in Guernewood Park for use as permanent supportive housing intended for chronic, high-priority homeless individuals in need of coordinated, long-term support for treatment of mental illness, substance abuse disorder or other problems.

That proposal, too, was dropped due to cost, though not before the prospect of what one opponent called “derelicts” moving into the house had riled the neighborhood.

“The attitude of local agencies is that they have to sneak these things into local neighborhoods, and this is not a place that’s going to allow that,” said local attorney Mario Torrigino, a member of Friends and Residents of Guerneville, or FROG, which formed to oppose the Armstrong Woods Road facility and remains active in the debate.

But homeless providers and advocates push back, saying long-term housing is clearly the best way to solve the crisis. Also, they note, people who aren’t homeless have many of the same behavioral health burdens and are still allowed to live in neighborhoods.

“We’re not going to get them any better leaving them in a parking lot all day,” said Dannielle Danforth, director of housing and homeless services for West County Community Services, a major nonprofit player in the area.

Reliant on triage

The political lines thus drawn are still evident in lingering distrust of county government and nonprofit partners, as well as service providers in general. Some critics view them as “enablers” of drunks and drug users who cluster downtown, or as heavy-handed authorities eager to impose homes for substance abusers and the mentally ill on unsuspecting neighborhoods.

Recent community efforts to devise solutions have brought stakeholders closer together, said Jeniffer Wertz, a representative for the Guerneville Community Alliance. The group’s members have lodged complaints about lax enforcement of laws and a downtown code of conduct for clients of the existing winter-time homeless shelter run by West County Community Services.

She also said help for those in need must be balanced with concerns for the larger community.

“There is a lot of suspicion, because while the funding keep increasing (for programs), so does the homeless population,” Wertz said.

Many residents wish county sheriff’s personnel would do more to police public intoxication, urination, trespassing and the like. A renewed and focused effort is underway to lobby the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control into tougher enforcement of the liquor license at MD Liquor and Food. The store’s parking lot is a common gathering place for homeless customers. Some neighborhood activists claim the store enables open drinking and intoxication.

County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the area’s lone elected representative in local government, concedes that trying to find solutions for the river while the county as a whole is still working on a long-term, unified strategy to reduce the homeless population “is like building the plane while we’re flying it.”

Officials have sunk millions of taxpayer dollars into housing and support services countywide in recent years but with little to show in Guerneville for the investment.

“We don’t have a system that’s highly functioning,” said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, which oversees affordable housing development and economic aid programs outside city limits.

Work is underway to improve coordination and integration countywide, but she described the approach in Guerneville as “more triaging to the very best of our ability.”

Slow progress

While exasperated residents urge quicker action, service providers underscore the patience required to build trust with homeless clients who present the most complicated cases. Mental illness, physical and psychological trauma and substance abuse, as well as general poor health are all pitfalls.

“Just the needs of this population are dynamic, and it takes time,” Sonoma County Health Services Director Barbie Robinson said. “There is no political expediency to it, and it takes time to build relationships. It takes time for people either to want to engage or sustain engagement in treatment or services.”

All the while, divisive politics can contribute to “a kind of paralysis” over trying to find sites for needed facilities, such as the supportive housing of the sort Hays enjoys, said Jenny Abramson, the county’s homeless and community services manager.

Many in the community feel they’ve been left out of the conversation. They also are frustrated by the lack of services and progress, and “their knee-jerk reaction is, ‘We don’t want anymore than we have, and what we have mostly is not going to make that much of a difference,” Abramson said.

There has been some forward movement, however. The nonprofit West County Health Center is moving its 2-year-old homeless health care program into a larger building adjacent to its current, modular home, where an array of existing medical, psychiatric and social services will be expanded, Program Manager Jed Heibel said.

Two staffers from the nonprofit West County Community Services, a frequent partner, will begin working under the same roof providing financial and housing guidance, case management and other support necessary to help people find work and shelter. Laundry and shower facilities will be included in the program, contributing to better health and improved appearance that might smooth the path toward housing and employment.

Guerneville also is one of the county sites for a $16.7 million federally funded pilot program dubbed “whole person care” designed to extend medical, mental health and other services to individuals whose frequent contacts with law enforcement and emergency medical personnel reveal chronic, unmet needs.

Also, more than $400,000 was allocated by the county last year to the West County Community Services toward an effort called “rapid rehousing.” It has housed eight homeless individuals and 25 people at imminent risk of homelessness since about December, said Tim Miller, the group’s executive director.

The program offers temporary assistance with rent, deposits, utility bills or other hurdles necessary to secure housing for someone who can demonstrate the ability to be economically self-sustaining after a set period of time.

Another chunk of county funding, $50,000, has been put into an emergency relief fund intended to prevent struggling service workers, particularly those affected by seasonal cutbacks, from falling into homelessness.

Overseen by Wertz’s group, the Guerneville Community Alliance, the grant in its first month kept two families housed, she said.

“There is no easy answer, because it really is a little bit of everything, and at some point just figuring out what works right and just doing it even if there’s going to be backlash,” said Danforth.

“There’s going to be haters. There’s going to be detractors. There’s going to be people who say what they say.”

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

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story misidentified Sonoma County Director of Health Services Barbie Robinson.

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