Heroes or vigilantes? Guerneville divided after business owners move homeless camp
Two west county men are being praised as heroes and vilified as vigilantes after organizing the clearing of a downtown Guerneville homeless encampment they say had become a danger to the community and a nuisance to nearby businesses.
The men, who recently opened a youth center downtown, say they acted because of a perceived lack of action by officials to address trash and safety concerns or meaningfully help those living on the street. They say they worked with camp residents to coordinate their relocation, though some of those who were displaced said they felt like they had no choice in the matter.
The two men, Chris Garske and Josh Rogers, were surprised to be labeled a vigilantes by many in their own community.
Both live in Occidental and grew up in the area, and say they’re deeply invested in west county. With the region struggling to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic, Garske, 34, and Rogers, 38, decided to give back by opening the youth center in a converted auto shop last month on Armstrong Woods Road in downtown Guerneville.
Just around the corner on Third Street, a block away from the town’s main thoroughfare, a homeless encampment had popped up months earlier. Garske and Rogers were worried about hosting children in an area where people were struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues.
“It makes my eyes open to what do we need to do?” said Garske, who co-owns Noel’s Automotive in Monte Rio with Rogers, his brother-in-law. “And, I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer for me.”
On the morning of July 2, Garske, Rogers and two other men brought pickups and a trash dump trailer to Third Street. Their intent, Garske and Rogers said, was to clean up the two-block street and offer to help any of the dozen or so homeless people living along the sidewalk who wanted to move to what Garske and Rogers thought was a more suitable spot at the Park and Ride parking lot, just outside of town on Highway 116.
Later that day, much to the relief of nearby business owners, the sidewalks were clear and around five people who had been living on Third Street had set up camp at the Park and Ride.
“The way it all went down was so simple and smooth and everyone was happy,” said Garske, adding that his crew loaded and unloaded people’s belongings and brought them food and water. “They were happy. We were happy.”
Israel Thill awoke that morning at the encampment on Third Street to a handful of “buff” men in trucks telling him “we gotta move you guys.” A few days earlier, a man had alerted the camp they were coming to clean up the area on July 2. Garske and Rogers said the individual is a local business owner but declined to name him publicly.
By the time the full group arrived on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, about half the camp had dispersed. Thill said neither Garske nor anyone else threatened him. He ultimately decided to leave when the group told him they had been in talks with law enforcement.
"I didn't want to really, but I felt like I had no other choice," Thill said.
At the same time that morning, camp resident Renee Reynolds was walking her pit bull, Loca, by the Russian River. When she returned to Third Street, she found all of her possessions, including necessary medication, had been thrown out in the cleanup.
“I'm talking everything — ashes from my son, my brothers, my mom — pictures of my son who passed away, cellphones ... it goes on,” Reynolds said. “A lot of really sentimental stuff.”
Over a week later, the incident continues to reverberate through Guerneville, a riverfront town that has long grappled with homeless encampments on its sidewalks, trails and parks. Perhaps predictably, a loud debate has spilled over onto Facebook, with various accusations leveled at local business owners, homeless advocates and service providers.
For some in town, the removal of the camp represents an alarming act of vigilantism and an infringement on the rights of the most vulnerable in their community. Others, meanwhile, see it as a practical and humane response to a dangerous situation local officials have long failed to address.
Guerneville is now left to sort out the ramifications of an apparently unprecedented move by local citizens, including an increased risk of wildfires sparked by homeless individuals, some of whom advocates say have since scattered into the hills surrounding the town out of fear.
“People are fed up,” said Jennifer Wertz, fund manager at the local nonprofit Russian River Alliance. “I was kind of surprised how much people supported what these guys did. But the unintended consequences are worrying.”