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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.”

Some local businesses — which rely heavily on seasonal tourism and have in recent years been rocked by floods, fires and an ongoing pandemic — have come to view homelessness as yet another threat to their livelihood and community.

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

Hardly anyone denies that there was drug use and occasional violence on Third Street. According to Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office data, authorities have so far responded to 14** reported incidents in the area this year, about half of which were listed as drug offenses.

Fisher — along with Garske, Rogers and other local business owners — said they had reached out repeatedly to the county to do something about lawlessness at the camp, but to no avail.

Officials say they don’t have clear legal authority to evict people from public property without first offering them shelter. And despite new temporary and permanent housing options for homeless people that opened during the pandemic, there are not nearly enough beds for everybody living on the street, complicating encampment enforcement.

Fisher said that while Garske and Rogers told him and other business owners on Third Street about their plans, business owners were not involved in the cleanup.

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

“I thanked them because I felt at least somebody 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 the Park and Ride last year, called the Third Street removal “cowardly and ineffective.”

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

Another concern, he said, is that some of the homeless individuals for whom the nonprofit provides services are currently unaccounted for after leaving Third Street.

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

With Third Street cleared, she’s now staying on a mattress in a park by the river with the few items she has left.

“It scared me and pissed me off, because there's a lot of stuff that can't be replaced,” Reynolds said.

When the camp was initially told about the planned cleanup, Ballentine “Tino” D Pena gathered the residents to decide what to do. Half packed up and left, and five or six people agreed to move to the Park and Ride.

Like other camp members, Pena said a main reason he decided to leave was that he thought Garske’s group had the backing of law enforcement. Garske and Rogers said they told Pena and others they had spoken with authorities but that nobody had been ordered to leave Third Street.

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

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

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said no one involved in the incident has filed a report of crime, so the agency has no grounds to investigate.

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

Rogers said the day before the cleanup, he went to the Sheriff’s substation in Guerneville to notify authorities of his group’s plans for Third Street.

“I took it, in my own interpretation, that it was do what you got to do,” Rogers said of the Sheriff’s Office response.

Valencia said local deputies and sergeants had no prior knowledge of the encampment removal and were not involved in any way. The Sheriff’s Office would not encourage private citizens to clear homeless camps, he said.

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

Guerneville resident Karen Devan said she witnessed the unidentified man first tell the camp about cleanup. Concerned, she said she made a report at the Guerneville substation about a plan by local residents to remove a homeless camp.

Devan provided The Press Democrat a photograph of the business card she said was given to her by the Sheriff’s Office employee who took down her report.

Valencia said he could not find any record of a report filed by Devan.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, whose district includes Guerneville, said prior to the cleanup, the county had begun to offer services and shelter to those living on Third Street, ahead of eventually clearing the encampment. Now, the Park and Ride has become a “top priority in west county,” Hopkins said.

While she understands people are frustrated by the process of managing homelessness, she said only the Sheriff’s Office, in coordination with county outreach teams, can legally remove a camp in Guerneville. She highlighted the $2 million that the Board of Supervisors recently allocated to address homelessness and invited Garske and Rogers to volunteer for trash pickups with the local Clean River Alliance.

“I would love to work with them and harness that energy and enthusiasm and turn it into something that's productive,” Hopkins said. “But this kind of action is a very slippery slope.”

Garske and Rogers maintain they were simply acting in everyone’s best interest, particularly those now living at the Park and Ride. They say they’ve mostly ignored the social media uproar in recent days and reject being called vigilantes.

They’d prefer the term “community helpers.”

“At the end of the day, none of this was a forced issue,” Garske said. “It wasn't violent. And I wish (encampment residents) all the best. I'll be checking on them every other day to make sure that they at least have water.”

Pena, one of the camp residents, said he saw someone from Garske’s crew stop by once to drop off some chicken. But other local residents have begun bringing them regular hot meals and even helped set up a portable toilet at the Park and Ride.

He’s started telling others living on the streets or in the woods to set up camp in the lot.

“There's more coming,” Pena said.

**Editor’s Note: According to Sonoma County Sheriff's Office data, there have been 14 calls for service/incidents in the area of Third Street in Guerneville so far this year. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect tally of incidents from that data.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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