In response to a spiraling homeless issue that has left drifts of trash strewn along the banks of the Russian River in the tiny Sonoma County resort town of Guerneville, residents have organized themselves into frenetic weekly cleanups to reclaim their river.
The small town of 4,500 has struggled for answers in the face of a growing homeless population that per capita is almost four times that of San Francisco’s. The thick woods lining the winding river reveal numerous tent cities surrounded by piles of abandoned clothes, food scraps, and even human waste - threatening to wash into the ocean when the river swells.
“Well it’s bad,” said Chris Brokate who began organizing twice-weekly volunteer cleanups over a year ago. “I hate seeing it. It breaks my heart and I hate to see anybody living like this too.”
On a recent Monday in Guerneville’s town square, Brokate summoned his troops together — a ragtag group of a dozen area residents decked out in bright orange vests. He explained the target of the day’s mission — a river bank just outside of town spattered with debris.
“I’ve been going in there for six months now,” Brokate said to the group. “Just going after stuff that’s been left behind.”
The homeless issue has gripped Guerneville over the last couple years — a recent and heated town meeting drew around 500 people to debate the issue. Since the beginning of December, the town which lives off tourism, has been hit by five suspicious fires including an arson fire at a health facility that caters to the homeless. Police said none of the fires seemed to be started by vagrants occupying abandoned dwellings — deepening the mystery.
Sonoma County officials have proposed building a homeless service center in the area while some residents oppose the effort, saying the added services would only draw more to the already beleaguered area.
But on the lines of the twice-weekly trash cleanups, it seems finger pointing is far down the list of priorities.
“I could brood and I could yell and scream whose fault is it?” said cleanup volunteer Robin Johnson. “Or i could pick up a bag and get this stuff out of here.”
Group members began affectionally calling themselves the “the garbage patch kids,” taking up industrial red trash bags as their symbol. Often the sites relinquish hypodermic needles, homemade toilets and other gritty evidence of the former campers. But volunteers joke and laugh as if the outings are a recreational excursion.
“You just have to have a good sense of humor and a willingness to pick up trash,” Johnson said, “and you’re in.”
Last year the group hauled away an estimated 80 thousand pounds of trash from the river banks, using funds from the county, Russian Riverkeeper and donations to pay the dumping fees.
Brokate, who runs a local cleaning business, said there is a special urgency to remove the trash during the winter when the rain-swollen river is famously known to climb its banks.
“One high rise out of the river,” Brokate said, “and this stuff gets swept down to our beaches.”
Brokate regularly visits the ramshackle tent cities along the river, visiting with their current occupants and enlisting their aid in the cleanup — even delivering garbage bags to be later collected.
Longtime homeless Guerneville resident Avery Goodman began forming his own cleanup around his camp where a smattering of tents look out on the river.
“Most people don’t seem to care,” Goodman said of his fellow campers. “I can’t help but pitch in and clean up other people’s messes.”
As the “garbage patch kids” descended on Goodman’s camp, he began hauling trash bags to an already staggering pile of garbage. His fellow campers shouted their disdain at the intrusion. The load easily filled the beds of two large pickup trucks, with a large mattress tied to the top. He assessed the colorful group buzzing with activity and quickly whisking away the load.
“Local people going out of their way,” Goodman said, “money out of their pockets to help us clean messes we and people before us have made.”
If Brokate harbored a grudge at the campers, or the lack of county resources for cleanup, he kept his cards close to his chest. Instead he supervised the cleanup with only a gentle barking of orders — briefly taking in the newly cleaned area before joining his fellow volunteers for a pizza lunch.
“We’re doing it because it’s there and somebody needs to,” Brokate said. “It’s just the right thing.”