winter homeless shelter opened in Guerneville

FIRST NIGHT — The winter homeless shelter opened in the Guerneville Veterans Hall this week, operated by West County Community Services and shelter manager Seamus McChesney.

Guerneville’s winter homeless center opened on a roll this week with its nightly free dinners lined up through the end of March.

“It’s all booked,” said Debra Johnson, the Guerneville businesswoman, chamber of commerce director and coordinator of the shelter’s nightly free dinners, donated and prepared by volunteers.

“People have really stepped up,” Johnson said. “We’re set for the winter. We even have chefs who want to cook and put up a menu board,” to offer homeless diners some choices, said Johnson.

The shelter welcomed its first guest at 5 p.m. on Sunday night when the doors opened on First Street. A damp, grey-haired, 60-something guy signed the log-in sheet and walked into the cavernous Vets Auditorium where a row of cafeteria tables and chairs were lined up to serve dinner.

“We’re ready, just like clockwork,” said Dannielle Danforth, director of housing and homeless services for West County Community Services (WCCS), the nonprofit that operates Guerneville’s annual winter shelter.

They’re prepared to accommodate up to 40 people a night under their contract, said Danforth, but more than that show up some nights when the weather turns unusually cold.

“We have yet to turn somebody away,” said Danforth.

The annual winter shelter gives homeless guests a place to sleep on the Vets Hall floor and offers hot showers and free warm clothes, plus the nightly hot meal. The homeless have to be out by 7 a.m. to make room for other Vets Hall users, such as River to Coast Children’s Services.

As part of its contract responsibilities, West County Community Services cleans and disinfects the space every morning.

“We need to be good neighbors with our neighbors,” Danforth said.

Shelter guests can take a shower if they choose, look at the inventory of donated clothes and get a mat and sleeping bag for the night. They can leave anytime, but they can’t just come and go. Smoking is allowed outside until the doors are locked for the night at 10 p.m.

West County Community Services operates the shelter with a paid staff, including new shelter manager Seamus McChesney and two or three aides.

Among those on hand to run the operation Sunday were McChesney; Pat Jones, last year’s manager; and Bob Green, a paid WCCS aide, who was once a shelter guest.

Finding the right staffing for an all-night homeless shelter can be a challenge, Green said. The shelter is “behavior-based”: no drinking or drugs are allowed, but someone under the influence will be allowed in as long as they behave. Pets are allowed, but they have to behave too.

“It takes a certain kind of finesse” to get everyone through the night, said Green.

The four-month shelter is supported by a county grant of $144,000 plus private donations, including the free meals, said Danforth. Cash, non-perishable food, such as granola bars, and clean socks are welcome and may be dropped off during the day at the WCCS office in Guerneville at the former Bank of America building on Main Street.

Hygienic items, including soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, are also welcome and can be dropped off at WCCS or at the Vets Hall every evening between 5 and 7 p.m. when the shelter is open.

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