Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Homelessness on the Russian River: 12.4.2008 Meeting with the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC)

Approximately 15 neighbors from Rio Nido & I attended the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC)’s meeting at the Russian River Senior Center two weeks ago. Although I STILL don’t feel that Rio Nido is the right location for a homeless shelter (temporary emergency or otherwise), I did find the meeting to be highly informative. The people at the meeting answered many of our questions regarding the problem of homelessness on the Russian River & what we can do about it.

Presenters at the RRIC meeting included:

  • Cathy Smith, RRIC, Guerneville Community Church
  • Sam Barnhart, Caseworker from Catholic Charities
  • Nancy Lisk, RRIC, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Paula Cook, Community Housing Corporation,
  • Georgia Berland, Executive Officer, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Jan DeWald, RRIC, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Elizabeth Middelberg, RRIC, Metropolitan Community Church

The information presented at the meeting has convinced me that we really do need to provide temporary, emergency winter shelter to the homeless members of our community, while arranging to construct & staff a permanent shelter as soon as possible. Studies have shown that a well-managed (emphasis on the “well-managed” part) homeless shelter & community supported housing helps people get their lives back on track, improves communities, & increases property values because it removes the quality of life problems & economic liabilities caused by leaving people out on the street.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that RRIC is the right organization for providing leadership on homeless issues affecting communities along the Russian River. Although they seem sincere & caring as individuals, their “organization” comes across to me as highly disorganized & dysfunctional. First of all, they’ve been around for three years & still don’t even have a permanent location for an emergency shelter, let alone a permanent one. Why didn’t they haul their bucket to the formerly gushing well of Russian River Redevelopment funds before 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly & Governor Ah-nold turned off the spigot?

I’ve also heard that RRIC has experienced savage infighting, held secret meetings without notifying the community or even some of their members, & have recently split up into two separate & mutually hostile groups.

I know several caring, committed & highly capable homeless advocates who have left the group because they couldn’t stand the toxic politics. Other grit their teeth & stay onboard because if you care about homeless issues, RRIC is the only game in town. RRIC has been also been accused of fraud (for accepting financial contributions from local organizations & individuals even though they still don’t have their 501(c) non-profit status legally squared away. They’ve also managed to alienate &/or infuriate various organizations & individuals around town (most recently the Rio Nido Homeowners Association) due to their poor communication, disorganization, & high-handedness. Various homeless advocates have also accused RRIC of doing little of the work & taking most of the credit for various successful programs (like last year’s emergency winter shelter) & misappropriating (or at least mismanaging) funds.

  • Why do we NEED a temporary emergency homeless shelter?: Because, when push comes to shove, the Russian River is NOT a third-world country (even though our homeless problem & the currently crappy economy sometimes makes us feel like we live in one). When the weather goes below freezing during the winter, people need a safe, warm place to go with cooking & bathroom facilities.
  • Why can’t we use Hubert Hall like we did last year?: The official reason from the new priest St. Elizabeth’s Church (which owns Hubert Hall) is that they need to hold masses (services) in Hubert Hall to save on utility bills. But I’ve heard rumors that some rogue RRIC supporters left scary messages on St. Elizabeth’s answering machine. It’s too bad. The emergency shelter at Hubert Hall was successful over the last two winters, & has been widely supported by our community.
  • How many people would be staying in this shelter each night?: Last year, 10-17 people stayed in Hubert Hall on cold nights. I have not heard of any negative incidents or criminal activity associated with the emergency shelter in Hubert Hall.
  • How would the shelter be kept safe?: The emergency shelter is only open for limited hours in the early evening through early morning. A qualified & experienced social worker (in this case, Mr Barnhart from Catholic Charities) would supervise those staying in the shelter to ensure that the surrounding area remains safe & quiet.
  • How many homeless people live on the River? For obvious reasons, it’s hard to count homeless people. But according to statistics gathered by the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless we have approximately 238 homeless people here on the Russian River. That’s a lot, considering that we only have a total of 3,841 people in Rio Nido, Guerneville, & Monte Rio according to the 2000 Census.
  • Who are the homeless?: When we talk about the “homeless problem,” we’re usually referring to the “chronic homeless”. The US Department of Housing & Urban Development defines them as people who’ve been out on the streets for 12 months or longer. We River Rats & Rattinas define them more colloquially as “the bums who panhandle, camp under the Guerneville Bridge, hang around looking creepy in the Safeway parking lot, & who scare people away.” They generally have severe mental illnesses & substance abuse issues (disabilities), which prevent them from functioning normally & obtaining employment & housing.

    But our homeless population also includes people who do not appear to be homeless. They seem totally “normal” & often even have jobs &/or children. Alas, they don’t earn enough income on a steady basis for settling down anywhere. They sleep in their cars or abandoned buildings, take showers & occasionally stay with friends or relatives, drift in & out of temporary housing, or have a trailer but no permanent place to park it. I personally know at least three local families with young children headed by single moms who’ve been homeless this way.

    The moms may be poor, single, uneducated & unskilled, but they’re basically nice & responsible people. Homeless people with children (usually single moms) generally do not stay in shelters, because most facilities are not set up for families with kids & also because "homeless" parents feel as protective of their children as "housed" parents do.

    According to Jan DeWald, a significant number of homeless people are “emancipated minors” who’ve "aged out" of the Foster Care system (which only supports children until they're 18 years old) or whose families have abandoned them. These people are just kids, for pete's sake.
  • Why can’t these people find housing?: People who become habitually homeless are usually mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or have other disabilities which prevent them from either holding down a job or going through the process & paperwork required to obtain social services, housing, & SSI disability payments. Without a steady income, good credit record, & ability to present well, they can’t find anyone willing to rent to them.
  • Why won’t their family or friends take them in? Those among the chronic homeless have generally exhausted all of their options or have no family members capable of helping them. Unsurprisingly, these folks are difficult for others to live with long-term. Friends & relatives take them in at first, then – one after the other in succession – get fed up & kick them out after 6 months of sleeping on the couch without getting their act together (which they cannot do without professional help). Often their parents have passed away & they're rapidly approaching senior citizenship themselves. Many of them have served in the Vietnam War & suffered permanent mental damage as a result.
  • Why can’t we just give these people a one-way bus ticket to Santa Rosa?: Because most of these people were born &/or raised here & feel that the Russian River is their home. Although life on the streets & under the Bridge is hard, they've learned how to cope & stick with what they know. They've learned the ropes & have friends & support here in this community. They know where they can get food, clothing, & access to a bathroom or shower (some homeless people DO have jobs –albeit low-paying – & do need to be presentable at work). These folks will cling to, protect & defend their little sleeping-bag-sized scrap of turf under the Guerneville Bridge with the same passion & determination that my neighbors & me in Rio Nido cling to, protect, & defend our dinky little ramshackle homes perched upon our precipitous, overly-shady tufts of dry land. We all make ourselves at home, wherever our homes happen to be.
  • If RRIC cares so much, why don’t they provide a shelter in their own building?: Their own building? Ha ha ha! RRRIC doesn’t have a building. They’re just a group of concerned citizens trying to work with various churches, government agencies, & non-profits to get homeless people some desperately-needed help. I wish they DID have a building, because then we wouldn't be worrying about finding temporary facilities for an emergency winter homeless shelter.
  • … And what the heck IS RRIC, anyway?: They';re group of local homeless advocates & church leaders. Alas, most of the homeless advocates & church leaders have dropped out of the group. They’ve been around for three years & are in the process of obtaining 501(c) nonprofit status. Unfortunately, they haven’t made much progress in addressing homeless issues due to disorganization & toxic internal politics.
  • What housing programs do we currently offer here on the Russian River?: West County Services provides emergency housing vouchers (good for staying in a local hotel) for families with children in need. We also offer Section 8 (federally subsidized) housing, but, alas, the waiting list is two years long.
  • Is it even possible to the help the homeless?: According to Ms. Berland, The majority of homeless people have temporarily fallen upon hard times, have support networks (friends, family, & community services), & manage to get their lives back on track. With the proper support systems in place (I’ll get to that later), 75% of even the chronic homeless population (i.e. the “hard cases”) are able to settle into permanent housing & become law-abiding members of their communities.
  • So what can we do?: We need to provide a temporary emergency shelter in downtown Guerneville for this winter, because that’s where the homeless people & various services & amenities are located. A site in a residential neighborhood like Rio Nido is inappropriate for both the homeless people & the local residents. And we also need to build a permanent shelter/housing with the appropriate social services. As mentioned above, a combination of welfare, job training, counseling, affordable housing, medical care, & other support (fixing bad credit, obtaining SSI & disability & other benefits, etc.) enable the majority of homeless people to obtain a steady income & housing. Unfortunately, social service programs are currently facing severe budget cuts.

    The chronic homeless have severe & persistent mental health issues & require permanent “community supported housing” to keep them off the streets. Which means they would be given a place to live, a social worker to follow their case, and whatever rehabilitation, medication, mental health services & other support they require.

    At first, this seems expensive & downright unfair to the ordinary taxpayer. Why should we give permanent housing & services these people when the rest of us are struggling & get no help at all? However, many towns & cities – including Washington DC – have discovered that it’s a LOT less expensive to provide community supported housing to the chronic homeless than it is to leave them out on the streets. This makes sense when you consider the costs of policing, un-reimbursed emergency room visits, sporadic social services & shelter, loss of income for local businesses & quality of life issues.

    If you feel that providing permanent housing & ongoing social services for the chronic homeless/mentally ill is expensive & unfair, please do consider the fact that a single ambulance trip to Palm Drive Hospital for someone in an alcoholic coma who’s choking on their own vomit costs over $1000! Tax payers routinely pay for this sort of thing, & a host of other hidden costs which are astronomical & totally avoidable.
  • Won’t a permanent homeless shelter lower our property values?: According to Ms. Berland a well-run homeless shelter &/or permanent community housing program (I emphasize the words WELL-RUN) tends to RAISE property values in the long-run because these programs eliminate the problems caused by leaving homeless people out & about.
  • What affordable housing options do we currently have available?: Um … you can move to Nevada. But seriously, we don’t have many. Even tiny studios around here are renting for around $800 per month. . There’s section 8 (which has a two-year waiting list even if you qualify); trailer parks (assuming you have a trailer & don’t live in one of the trailer parks that are being shut down); & emergency housing vouchers for families with children from West County Community Services (to stay at a cheap, residential hotel like River Lane during the off-season). Luther Burbank’s planned affordable housing complex on 5th & Mill will provide sliding scale apartments with some units set aside for permanent community supported housing. But that’ll take at least three years to build & I don’t know if folks around here can wait that long & there may not be enough units to go around.

Th-th-that’s all folks. I’ve tried my best to gather reliable information from various people involved. Please feel free to comment & provide any additional information that you may have.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that overview of our local homeless situation. It's been something relegated to the edges of my mind, as like everyone else up here, it seems all-consuming just to keep my own roof overhead. The frighteningly high number of foreclosures casts a chilling shadow for those of us with overly-high payments & dwindling income in the recession. Chronic homeless people aside, any of us could find ourselves stuck.

With so many foreclosed vacant homes and built-but-never-sold office buildings, we don't have a housing shortage--we have an AFFORDABLE housing shortage.

As citizens and decent human beings, we've got an obligation to keep people from freezing on the streets. And it IS freezing at night now.

What's your take on what the average person can do to help? I'm not one to join a committee, and can't afford my own bills right now. I've already given away old clothes. Don't have any spare coats or blankets. Do you have any other ideas?

Russian River Rattina said...

You can donate any food you have to the Mill Street Thrift store; work at the Food Bank on Friday afternoons; serve food at St. Andrews on Tuesday nights; or buy a toy & donate it to the Fire House in Guerneville; or work at the annual Christmas lunch/dinner at the Vet's Hall from 1-4pm (the toys will be given to all the children at this event). Also, gloves, hats, scarves & socks can be bought cheaply & I'm sure the homeless folks could use those.

Sophie said...

Holly Schlaack offers us a guide to the tormented world of aboutsmall kids. She tells their narratives of life both earlier and after they enter foster care. Her firsthand, on the ground experience is capsulized in her list of "A Dozen Ways to Make a Difference," so that the reviewer will be not only affected by these stories but shown a map to help make life better for them. I recommend Invisible Kids for any professional or private citizen who worries about children. (

Anonymous said...

not all the homeless of the river live "under the bridge". some have hidden campsites...that are kept clean and self policed.
Did you know that the homeless themselves have a tiered social system? 'Bridge people' are the low end!