Jeniffer Wertz’s career helping low-income workers in Guerneville started with a simple question: “How hard can it be to fix a four-block town?”
Wertz posed that question to herself years ago as she noted the number of homeless individuals while walking through the unincorporated community in West Sonoma County, however, the solution she and others at the Russian River Alliance have been working towards aims not to help those who are already chronically homeless, but instead to assist those at risk for homelessness.
The Russian River Alliance is a community advocacy organization that has been operating out of Guerneville on an all-volunteer basis since 2012. Wertz, along with three other members, work together to raise funds to provide direct financial assistance to both at-risk workers and struggling businesses in the area.
According to Russian River Alliance CFO Bryan Hughes, Guerneville is what’s called DUC—a disadvantaged unincorporated community. Hughes said the Lower Russian River area—and Guerneville especially—are generally neglected by the county while serving as a destination for the area’s homeless.
Though homelessness in the area has decreased in the past few years, dropping from 248 to 198 current houseless individuals who call Guerneville home, the area still hosts a per capita number of houseless individuals five times that of Santa Rosa and four times that of San Francisco.
Still, RRA is determined to help the community by supporting vulnerable workers before they become chronically homeless, a condition Wertz said is harder to overcome than occasional financial hardship. By helping the service workers the community depends on to staff the tourism sector—many of whom work seasonally and/or may be undocumented—RRA is able to build a stronger community, protect the industry the town relies upon and prevent working people falling on hard times from becoming homeless.
“A lot of times working people don’t qualify for aid because they work and I think that’s wrong,” Wertz said. “Trying to solve the homeless problem after the fact with the chronically homeless is really difficult and expensive. Nobody seems to have a solution.”
Wertz, who has a background in law enforcement, began working with the Russian River Alliance in 2017, instituting the “workforce fund” to directly help those already working survive the economic difficulties the area has faced through recent years of natural disasters and now, Covid-19—the economic ramifications of which disproportionately hit service and tourism industry businesses and employees.
When floods hit the Lower Russian River area that year, the Red Cross arrived and distributed cleaning kits while families were forced to seek shelter in their cars, with nothing to eat. Not only did many workers lose their homes and belongings—including food which spoiled—they also lost work. Wertz saw the need for direct relief to working families facing natural disaster and economic hardship.
The workforce fund began when she and Hughes pulled over $1,000 out of the RRA reserves to purchase 27 $50-Safeway gift cards, enough money to hopefully get basic supplies to those in need. Wertz recalls being heartbroken that some of the 50 or so families that came for aid had to be turned away with nothing.
“It’s a small community. People I knew who I wouldn’t expect—friends and neighbors—were down there. It really opened my eyes to how many people are on the fringe,” Wertz said.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Russian River Alliance has had to adapt its model, initially designed to assist down-and-out workers with temporary assistance to alleviate the effects of abrupt and occasional financial crises or recovery from brief (though traumatic) natural disasters. Although they applied for federal relief funds, Russian River Alliance was denied CARES Act dollars meant to provide rental assistance—a service they used to offer certain applicants with $300 direct payments. That money instead went to other organizations, who are now providing rental relief to certain community members, however, there are still those in need.
Instead, RRA shifted its focus to provide food and prepaid cards to service and tourism industry workers especially hard-hit by pandemic-related lockdowns. Wertz and Hughes said they have been able to provide to date $140,000 in assistance to community members, while also helping local businesses to survive.
For instance, getting donated food to West County residents out of work because of Covid-19 presented a logistical challenge—and an opportunity. RRA used donated funds to hire two Guerneville taxi companies for three months to deliver food to rural residents. RRA has also helped feed out-of-work West County residents by purchasing gift cards from struggling local restaurants.
Hughes said the RRA is “trying to be strategic and surgical” in how they spend their funds in the community. The RRA relies on small donors to fund its operation, which, being 100-percent volunteer-run, has incredibly low overhead.
While the organization relies heavily on community member donations, one unnamed corporate sponsor and, on occasion, grants from the county, Hughes said the organization has been reaching out to residents of the San Francisco and Sacramento areas as well. Tourists who frequent the Lower Russian River, upon hearing about the difficulties the region faces, are often eager to assist those who make their vacation destination worth visiting.
Those in need of help, or who would like to help, are encouraged to visit russianriveralliance.org to tap into services or make a donation.