Story by Dani Burlison

When shelter in place orders were implemented in California, Jim Blake had an idea that could prevent overcrowding—and prevent a potential increase of COVID-19 cases—at some Sonoma County shelters and addiction treatment facilities. Blake, the Executive Director at Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, says that the 76-acre forested conference space he runs was empty because guest groups and Outdoor Science Camp had cancelled their programs for a few months. He reached out to Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission to offer help.

“Jeff Gilman, the director [of Redwood Gospel Mission], and I are on the line, and I said, ‘just decompress down to the numbers that you need, and come on out to the camp and we’ll open our doors.’ We had staff, we have a full dining hall. We have everything in place,” says Blake. “So we opened up that night.”

That evening, roughly 80 people from three separate programs run by Redwood Gospel Mission arrived at the West Sonoma County conference grounds.

Founded in 1946 the Redwood Alliance Conference Grounds is a faith-based nonprofit organization that hosts numerous residential Christian and outdoor educational camps, as well as operating Sonoma Canopy Tours. With lodges, cabins and cottages empty because of cancelled group events during the October 2017 fires in Sonoma County, the conference grounds were able to host firefighters from outside of the area while they battled the Tubbs Fire. In 2019, Redwood Alliance once more opened their facility to house more than 350 first responders fighting the Kincade Fire.

Empty again because COVID-19 social distancing requirements resulted in numerous camp cancellations, Blake saw another opportunity to help the community. This time, thanks to funding from Community Foundation Sonoma County, some of the county’s roughly 3,000 unhoused people would find shelter in the forested conference grounds.

“Community Foundation has been instrumental in a number of responses we’ve been able to provide,” says Blake.

The grounds usually accommodate up to 400 people, but Blake says because of social distancing, they have cut that capacity in half. Since mid-March, they’ve housed between 65-80 people, both residents through the Redwood Gospel Mission’s homeless shelters, and participants in the Gospel Mission’s addiction recovery program.

“They’re all quarantined before they’re brought out so that there isn’t concern of COVID-19,” says Blake. “And when they get out there they haven’t had exposure to the general population so they can intermingle with each other without concern.”

The conference grounds are equipped with large meeting rooms that allow space for participants to work on their addiction recovery, life skills trainings, and receive counseling services. Residents are also able to earn food handler’s licenses, and gain maintenance and housekeeping skills; all transferable skills that residents can take with them when they reintegrate into their communities. And because outdoor recreation is such a big part of what Redwood Alliance offers its usual visitors, residents can take part in archery classes and learn about the local ecology from naturalists.

“Right now we just need to provide a place for people to stay, but then there’s all kind of benefits that we did not anticipate happening with this,” says Blake.

Blake says that the men and women staying at Redwood Alliance are finding some respite from the stress of being homeless and/or working toward sobriety in an often overcrowded shelter network. They are focused, relaxed, and taking steps to be self-sufficient while enjoying the peace and calm of the conference grounds.

Looking forward, Blake says that Alliance Redwoods is in dialogue with the County of Sonoma to potentially extend the program through the next twelve months, if the need is there.

“At the end of the day the goal here isn’t just to warehouse people. It’s to address the underlying cause of addiction, bring about life change, and get them into a healthy place,” says Blake. “We’ve been put in a position to be able to—whether it’s the fires or floods or now coronavirus—to give back by providing essential services. I’d say we’re right in the sweet spot of our mission out there. And when we have people like Community Foundation partnering with us, good things happen.”

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