Until late January 2020, a community of nearly 250 unhoused people lived in tents along a 2-mile stretch of the Joe Rodota Trail, an eight-mile bike and pedestrian path that runs west from Santa Rosa to neighboring Sebastopol. Declared a public health crisis, the County of Sonoma approved a $12 million plan to transition people out of the encampment and into safer temporary shelters or long-term housing.
One location created to house people temporarily was Los Guilicos Village.
Located off of Highway 12, along the far stretch of eastern Santa Rosa near Oakmont Senior Retirement Community, Los Guilicos Village is a cluster of 60 small pallet homes. The site, operated by local nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County, aims to help people transition out of homelessness. Each unit in the pet-friendly Village is a standalone mini-apartment, with heating, a cozy bed, solar device chargers, and plenty of storage space. There are also hot showers, and staff on-site 24/7 offering security, support services, and meals to the residents.
Looking back at the encampment that had snowballed along the Joe Rodota Trail, St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Jack Tibbetts explains, “[The encampment] was having huge impacts on the neighbors. It was creating public dissatisfaction and fostering a lack of compassion towards people experiencing homelessness, which is not what we need right now. We need people to maintain a compassionate approach.”
Tibbetts says that life on the Joe Rodota Trail was “unspeakably horrible” for many residents. Many of those who relocated to Los Guilicos Village shared stories of sexual assault, sex trafficking, violence, and rampant drug use. Getting people out of the encampment was an immediate priority. Tibbetts reports that many new Los Guilicos Village residents were supported through severe drug withdrawals, receiving medical care, and case management when relocated to Los Guilicos.
Yet, many people were reluctant to relocate when first given the opportunity, and at first, felt unsure of what life at Los Guilicos Village would entail.
“The Joe Rodota Trail was their community, for better or for worse,” says Tibbetts.
Now six months in, Tibbetts says that people have made Los Guilicos Village their home, a place where they are all proud of living. Local volunteers have supplied residents with art, plants, and helped start a community garden to add to the sense of community. Case managers also help build community and are on-site to assist residents in finding medical care, housing services, counseling, and more.
Yet, like in any group living situation, issues have come up. Staff help mediate and resolve conflicts through the harm reduction practice of restorative justice rather than immediate, strict disciplinary measures. Some residents have been asked to spend a few days at another of St. Vincent de Paul’s temporary housing programs to defuse after a conflict, a valuable way to immediately ease tension and give people time to problem-solve together. A small number of residents have been asked to leave. Still, most have moved on to longer-term housing, with roughly 36 people receiving housing vouchers to support their transition into permanent housing.
Los Guilicos was scheduled to close on April 30, but because of COVID-19, the County granted emergency extensions, first through July, and then October. The Board of Supervisors recently extended that deadline indefinitely, while local health officials work to get the spread of the virus under control.
“[Shelter in place] turned everything on its head. We had started to build this trust among the villagers coming off the Joe Rodota Trail. Things were normalizing; routines were getting established,” says Tibbetts. “Then it was like, “Okay, COVID’s here. We can’t let people freely go into town at-will anymore. We have to quarantine here. We don’t want a situation where COVID-19 comes to the Village, and people who are very medically fragile, with loads of preexisting conditions, could die.”
St. Vincent de Paul agreed to quarantine their residents following the governor’s executive orders. Yet, if people needed to go to a medical appointment or their job, Los Guilicos provided transportation with strict sanitation practices. Routine testing is also available from a team of nurses from Saint Joseph Memorial. So far, there have been no positive tests at the site.
With an uncertain future ahead, Tibbetts is hopeful that Los Guilicos will remain free of coronavirus and is grateful for financial support that has enabled them to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic.
“The narrative I like to push and really underscore is how all these random players came in—including Community Foundation Sonoma County—with financial support to help make this a very colorful, and organized, and dignified place,” says Tibbetts.
Story by Dani Burlison, photos courtesy County of Sonoma