Heroes or vigilantes? The displacement of the Guerneville homeless camp divides the community

Some local businesses – which rely heavily on seasonal tourism and have been rocked in recent years by ongoing floods, fires and a pandemic – have come to view homelessness as another threat to their livelihoods and communities.

Berlin Fisher, owner of Outlaw Barber and Beauty on Third Street, said he had little problem with most of the homeless who stayed near his business. The problem, he pointed out, was an increase in aggressive behavior and drug trafficking by some in the camp.

Almost no one denies that there was drug use and occasional violence on Third Street. According to data from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, authorities have so far responded to 28 reported incidents in the area this year, about half of which have been listed as drug-related offenses.

Fisher – along with Garske, Rogers and other local business owners – said they had repeatedly contacted the county to do something about lawlessness in the camp, but to no avail.

Officials say they have no clear legal authority to evict people from public property without first offering them shelter. And despite the new temporary and permanent housing options for the homeless that opened during the pandemic, there are almost not enough beds for everyone living on the streets, making it difficult to enforce the encampments.

Fisher said that although Garske and Rogers spoke to him and other Third Street business owners about their plans, the business owners were not involved in the cleanup.

“We are just the beneficiaries of what happened, and for that we are supporting,” said Fisher, who thanked Rogers in a Facebook post.

“I thanked them because I felt at least someone in my community heard me,” Fisher said.

Tim Miller, executive director of the nonprofit West County Community Services, which operated a temporary tent shelter at Park and Ride last year, called the Third Street removal “cowardly and ineffective.”

“The unfortunate thing that comes with it, and you can understand the frustrations of people, is what was the bottom line? Miller said. “You took people from one area, and if you call it a ‘problem,’ you moved it to another area.”

Another concern, he said, is that some of the homeless people for whom the non-profit organization provides services are currently missing after leaving Third Street.

Reynolds, who said he lost his medication and the ashes of his family members, grew up in San Francisco and moved to Healdsburg in 1996 when his daughter was born. More recently, she has lived on and off the streets, in part due to a series of abusive relationships.

With Third Street cleared, she now sits on a mattress in a riverside park with the few items she has left.

“It scared me and pissed me off because there are a lot of things that cannot be replaced,” Reynolds said.

When the camp was initially informed of the planned cleanup, Ballentine “Tino” D Pena called the residents together to decide what to do. Half packed and gone, and five or six people agreed to move to the Park and Ride.

Like other members of the camp, Pena said that one of the main reasons he decided to leave was that he believed Garske’s group had the backing of law enforcement. Garske and Rogers said they told Pena and others that they had spoken to authorities but no one had been ordered to leave Third Street.

The group packed Pena’s things in the back of a pickup and Garske drove her a few hundred yards down River Road to the Park and Ride.

“They just took authority in their hands,” Pena said. “It was like they took away our civil rights or something.”

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said that no one involved in the incident had filed a violation report, so the agency has no reason to investigate.

“If we don’t have a victim, we don’t have a crime,” Valencia said.

Rogers said that the day before the cleanup, he visited the sheriff’s substation in Guerneville to brief authorities on his group’s plans for Third Street.

“My understanding, by my own interpretation, was that it was doing what you have to do,” Rogers said of the sheriff’s office response.

Valencia said local MPs and sergeants had no prior knowledge of the withdrawal from the encampment and were not involved in any way. The sheriff’s office would not encourage private citizens to clear homeless camps, he said.

“If you are dealing with homeless people on your property or at the entrance to your business, you should call law enforcement,” Valencia said.

Guerneville resident Karen Devan said she saw the unidentified man first speaking at the cleanup camp. Worried, she said she reported to Guerneville station about a plan by local residents to end a homeless camp.

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