A blank look crossed Chris Brokate’s face as he scanned the trash strewn bank of the Russian River north of Guerneville— one man’s abandoned homeless encampment that covered the wooded shoreline with things like furniture, propane tanks and a bicycle chop shop. To Brokate, who had seen hundreds of homeless camps since he began cleaning up Guerneville’s encampments several years ago, even this was off the charts.
“This is pretty wild,” Brokate said surveying the mounds of trash. “This is as bad as it gets.”
Less than a week later, before Brokate could strategize how to clean up the massive site, the rain-swollen Russian River would rise up and carry this entire trash field down river and out to the ocean.
“It can be discouraging,” Brokate had said that day.
But Brokate has logged plenty more victories than defeats in his fight to clean up the tiny Sonoma County river town of Guerneville and its outlying areas, founding a citizen’s group called the Clean River Alliance to haul away trash from the woods and beaches. The effort has leaned heavily on community volunteers to haul away garbage left by the homeless but most recently, the cleanup has incorporated the people at the heart of the issue — the homeless themselves.
In a program Brokate calls the Green Team, volunteers from the homeless community have begun weekly cleanups in town, working for a nominal wage to scour the city’s streets of detritus. Among those pitching-in to clean up was Dawn Anderson, who spent twenty years living on the wooded fringes behind the town’s Safeway where she met Brokate during one of his cleanup visits to her camp.
“There was no judgement,” Anderson said, “he just wanted to help us improve our living situation.”
With Brokate’s urging, Anderson joined in the cleanups and eventually became a member of the group’s board. She kicked drugs and alcohol and is now living in a house in town — still devoting her efforts to the weekly garbage pickups.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to walk down the streets holding my head up high,” Anderson said, “being clean and sober, having the store owners look out and giving you a pat on the back.”
After engaging the homeless for years, Brokate realized he’d tapped into new ground when the homeless began asking him for orange plastic trash bags to fill with their trash. Now every Thursday, the cleanup teams travel the area around picking up the filled bags as a quasi trash pickup day.
“The first year they staged over thirty-five thousand pounds of trash for us,” Brokate said.
The urgency of the area’s trash problem is amplified during winter months when the flood-prone river is known to climb its banks and haul away everything in its path. Brokate said the problem has been greatly reduced over the last few years as a testimony to the cleanup campaign’s effectiveness. Beach cleanups which once resulted in truckloads of garbage now barely fill a trash bag. In the woods just beyond Guerneville’s main street near the river, the rampant homeless encampments are largely gone due to the cleanups and local enforcement efforts.
But even without any outward signs of trash, Brokate said there is still evidence of the makeshift city that once thrived there.
“There might not be garbage here but it’s heavily impacted from years of people staying here,” Brokate said.
The Clean River Alliance has hauled away tons of trash since its founding several years ago. Brokate recently closed his own janitorial company to run the group full-time, harnessing individual grants as well as funding from Russian Riverkeeper to run the effort. The group’s weekly cleanups have hauled away everything from mattresses to abandoned trailers to couches. Brokate regularly fields calls from town officials and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s who’ve come to rely on the group’s ability to quickly martial a trash clearing posse.
Just outside the nearby town of Monte Rio, Brokate and two members of the Clean River Alliance walked down a dirt path into the woods to survey another abandoned encampment. Brokate said the woman who had lived in the camp had tried to get help cleaning it up but a communication problem curtailed those efforts before she moved on — leaving a wake of clothing and garbage. The trio plotted a future effort to remove the camp before filling up several containers with garbage and carrying them out.
“We’re finding a lot less places like this,” Brokate said of the encampment, “because of the relationship we’ve been able to have with them over the years.”
During a routine Green Team cleanup in town, a group of five homeless people made a steady march down River Road using tongs to pick-up cigarette butts and bits of paper. A store owner spotted the group and offered cups of coffee. Desire Lanford who became homeless following a divorce, said the cleanups have presented a different side of homelessness to a town that has become largely beleaguered by the issue.
“There’s a lot of negative titles that are involved in being homeless,” Lanford said. “And a lot of this work combats that.”
Brokate rattled off a statistic; there are 3200 homeless in Sonoma County on any night and only 700 shelter beds. He expressed frustration that so many people had no escape other than taking refuge in the woods.
“We’ve got a housing crisis,” Brokate said, his voice rising sharply. “I mean we’re pushing people off to these fringes and this is what’s happening; is the environment is taking an impact from lack of services, housing.”
Brokate walked through Guerneville tailing the group of homeless cleaning up the street dressed in bright yellow safety vests over bright orange shirts emblazoned with the Clean River Alliance logo. As if a man waking from the depths of a troubling dream, Brokate suddenly took notice of the cleaners as they dumped a plastic bucket filled with the day’s garbage into an orange trash bag. The river was forecast to flood in the coming storm — and this was trash the river wouldn’t claim.
“If we can do it here I think we can be a model for other places,” Brokate said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”