Editor’s note: Because of the challenging and divisive nature of this story, and the legal barriers to certain information, this article has been constructed as much from observation as verifiable fact, because getting to first-person sources proved difficult. We will continue to follow the story on the realities, pitfalls and difficulties of dealing with “the homeless issue.”
Two men, both well-known members of Healdsburg’s homeless population, died days apart just before Christmas. One of the men reportedly died from pneumonia, and the other from a heart condition worsened by the multiple traumas of homelessness, lack of medical help and from self-induced impairments of substance abuse, denial and low self-esteem. The short, but unofficial version, is the two men died of “homelessness.”
Unless you are one of the homeless people, or someone involved in the outreach to serve or house them, Healdsburg’s so-called “homeless problem” is largely an invisible one. These unsheltered men and women get pushed to the fringes of the community, under overpasses, along creeks, sleeping in cars, near abandoned buildings and hidden camps. The homeless are recognized by their tents, tarps, well-used bicycles and grocery carts full of mobile belongings. They often elicit diverted glances, mumbled complaints and uninformed assumptions of who they are.
Healdsburg’s homeless are given showers at a few local churches that also serve weekly dinners and hand out clothes, blankets and personal items. Reach For Home, a local nonprofit, provides daily field outreach, a “street medicine” program, service referrals and advocacy. Reach For Home also provides 19 emergency, first-step and permanent housing units with 35 bedrooms. It is working on partnering to add 40 more units.
Some of Reach For Home’s units have been subsidized by conduit funding from the city of Healdsburg and fiscal partnerships with the nonprofit Burbank Housing. Both of the men who died were on a county-coordinated waiting list for shelter, along with hundreds of other individuals, where women with children are given priority.
Healdsburg does not have an official emergency shelter for when the night temperatures drop to freezing or winter rains fall. (A few beds or cots are sometimes available at local churches.) Even so, a shelter big enough to meet emergency needs would have difficulty being approved in most, if not all, locations in Healdsburg, due to likely neighborhood opposition.
“People died because we weren’t doing everything we can,” said Colleen Carmichael, Reach For Home’s executive director. “These people are suffering from multiple traumas and it takes a multi-agency approach to deal with it. Right now, there are more closed doors than open doors.”
During the holidays, members of Healdsburg’s Soroptimist Club took donated coats, clothing and blankets to some homeless people and heard about the recent deaths.
“It became an education,” said Soroptimist’s Karen Tappin. “First, we see these men on the street, but then we get to know them and see the needs they have that are not being met. And then someone dies and we become appalled.”
Tappin praised the work of Reach For Home and Healdsburg’s Shared Ministries, plus other volunteers.
“Lots of people are doing a lot, but is it enough? I guess not. We should all get together and talk about this,” said Tappin.
More communication and community awareness also was endorsed by Carmichael, who said donated items and volunteers are community, several barriers and gaps exist between agencies and services aimed at the local homeless problem, said Carmichael.
One obstacle was at the center at one of the recent deaths. An elderly victim, David Madden, known as “Grandpa” on the street, had been living in his truck and without a home for several years. Days before Christmas he suffered a heart attack and was admitted to the hospital. But he either insisted on being released against medical orders or was otherwise discharged. Two days later after another heart attack he was re-admitted and died, according to multiple, but unofficial sources.
The second man, Armando Cruz, had also been living unsheltered for a few years. He was part of a close circle of other homeless men, including Madden. His death was reported unofficially as pneumonia. A street friend of his said Cruz struggled with a drug problem.
“We have people who don’t believe they are worthy of being saved,” said Carmichael. “Trauma is driving this show. Everybody here is struggling with something — and that’s not just the homeless.”
Healdsburg’s and Sonoma County’s homeless problem has been exacerbated by a “grossly understaffed” mental health system and a lack of suitable detox programs, said Carmichael, who confesses to anger over the situation. “Why do we say we don’t have the money for these programs? What kind of a society are we?”
At the same time, she admits, a person must want to be helped in order to accept support and do the work of recovery or therapy.
Reach For Home has an annual budget of $750,000 and a staff of seven, with a small group of volunteers and a 12-member board of directors. Funding is provided by government and private grants and ongoing fund raising.
Other obstacles encircle what local law enforcement officials can, and cannot do, when encountering homeless people or complaints about them. Unless adequate shelter facilities are made available, a homeless person cannot be forced to leave certain public spaces. This is what is driving the impasse at Santa Rosa’s Joe Rodota Trail.
Reach For Home launched a “street medicine” program in September with a $123,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County. Jaclyn Ramirez, an LVN and case manager makes daily rounds to the homeless, trying to link individuals with medical, detox or mental health services. It’s one of several new models Carmichael said is needed.
“Why do we have to wait for someone to become homeless before we can do proper referrals or admission to first-step or subsidized housing?” Carmichael asks. “That’s like waiting for someone to get an eviction notice before you can do something to avoid what was obviously going to happen.”
Chris Brokate, of the Clean River Alliance, is someone who sees and visits as many homeless people as anyone in north county. Supported by Russian Riverkeeper, Brokate and other volunteers complete weekly rounds to collect trash at all homeless camps from Cloverdale down the river to Guerneville. Currently his team also hauls away trash from the large Joe Rodota Trail homeless encampment in west Santa Rosa. He estimated the current north county homeless population at 450 individuals. “The numbers are growing since the (wild)fires.”
“This is a huge problem. Sonoma County has at least 3,000 homeless people or more and only 750 beds. It kills me to see so much hate and misinformation about the homeless from other people,” Brokate said. “These people — most of them — are really trying. They’re great to us and always (are) looking forward to seeing us. Lots of them don’t want to go to shelters because they lose their belongings. This is especially true when they (law enforcement) do ‘sweeps’ (force relocation of camps.)”