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Out Cold

homeless

Homeless stage sleep-in protest

By Zack Stentz

FROM DEFEAT often springs the seeds of the next battle, as the cliché has it. So it was with some 30 Sonoma County homeless people and their supporters who camped out on the lawn in front of the county Administration Building the night of June 10 on the first of a two-night protest to send a message to the Board of Supervisors.

The group was angry with the supervisors' April 16 decision to kill the long-planned conversion of the vacant Holiday Inn building on Santa Rosa Avenue into a comprehensive service center and residence for homeless adults. Supes didn't want that many people with that many problems under one roof. Protesters decided to take it to the source.

The event began as an afternoon rally of 65 people at Railroad Square, turned into a march through Courthouse Square, and then became a sleep-in. "What we want to know is, now that they've thrown out the Holiday Inn plan, what are they going to do?" asked Jim "Red" Willyard, one of the sleep-in organizers.

Authorities adopted a non-confrontational stance, turning off the sprinklers on the lawn where campers spread sleeping bags and providing such amenities as portable toilets and two security guards. "They're playing nice," Willyard said. "So we're making sure that everyone here stays well-mannered and we pick up all of our trash and leave the place the way we found it."

The young, spiky-haired idealists from the anti-poverty group Food Not Bombs showed up at 5 p.m. and again at 7 a.m. with a load of vegetarian dishes to nourish the throng. Familiar Sonoma County activist Mary Moore used the occasion to lecture the campers about genocide and nefarious U.S. government deeds in the Third World.

AS FOR THE HOMELESS, they defied attempts to determine any one "root cause" of their condition. A handsome, dreadlocked young man named Joel described himself as "homeless by choice," and extolled the virtues of living in an alley near Santa Rosa's library. "It's great," he said. "You get up whenever you want, don't have to answer to anyone."

But while Joel may have embodied every right-wing conservative "See! They just don't want to work" stereotype, and others present had obvious alcohol and drug problems, most of the protesters fit the liberal concept of the "working poor."

"Most of us have jobs," said Robin von der Gees, a well-spoken woman in her 30s. "What we need is affordable housing, especially SROs [Single Room Occupancies, the type of housing planned for the Holiday Inn project]."

Unlike Joel, von der Gees views her situation as downright nightmarish. "The winter is the worst," she said. "It's cold, it's rainy, and all your stuff gets moldy and mildewed unless you can take it to the laundromat to dry. I really want to get off the streets."

Also eager to leave homelessness behind was Jerry Culverson, a well-groomed, soft-spoken Coast Guard vet and acute observer of the street scene. "There are different levels of homelessness," Culverson explained. "There are the guys you see on the streets talking to themselves and then there are people like me."

Culverson recounted his struggle to keep a series of low-paying jobs from gas station cashier to Hewlett-Packard temporary employee while battling periodic bouts of depression. "I want to stay presentable to employers, so I claim a friend's address as my own to get mail and keep a pager to get messages," he said. "But it's not easy to do, and a lot of these people aren't able to do those things."

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Culverson and his comrades broke camp and moved into the supervisors' chambers to deliver their concerns in person. But before allowing the homeless and their advocates to speak out, the supes authorized a $30 million project to expand the sheriff's, public defender's, and court facilities, an irony not lost on protesters.

Santa Rosa Supervisor Tim Smith defended the decision to kill the Holiday Inn project and the county's general policy on homelessness in the face of a passionate, sometimes hostile barrage of questions from the audience. Protesters were particularly incensed by the county officials passing up $3.9 million in federal Housing and Urban Development funds earmarked for the project.

"I want to state that the idea that the Holiday Inn program was the only option for low-income housing in Sonoma County is false," Smith said, "and we are looking at other ways of spending the HUD money we qualify for."

"Since you had these people tell you their Hall of Justice proposal, we'd like to come in and give you a concise proposal for a 'people's hall of justice,'" countered Kevin Wilson, one of the sleep-in's organizers.

Smith agreed to hear the proposal at an unspecified date. The supervisors then moved on to the next item of business and the homeless filed out of the chambers, past the lawn they had slept on and meticulously cleaned up afterwards, and scattered onto the sidewalk, vowing to return for another sleep-in the next night.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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