They don’t come to northern California for the bubbly, the marijuana or the luxury hotels and they don’t enjoy picnic lunches along the Russian River. There are more than 150,000 of them in the whole state, most of them sleeping in the streets of L.A., San Francisco, Ukiah, you name it. If they come for any one reason it’s for the weather, which an indigent wanderer from Missouri described to me as “survivable.” He added, “in winter you don’t see snow here.” This February afternoon on my redwood deck, it’s 83 degree in the shade. It was in the 80s yesterday.
If I had no place to live and no work in Kentucky, Michigan or Vermont I’d make the trek to California to stay dry and as warm as could be inside a tent or in a bedroll under one of the bridges in Santa Rosa or someone other city. I’d be in the company of some confederates addicted to speed and heroin. Others might have an STD or the flu. But at least we’d be in the same boat.
Sonoma County, which likes to call itself “Wine Country,” has been losing population because of the fires and the smoke, the shortage of housing and the high rents that make them unaffordable for men who work in the vineyards and who often commute from as far away as Vallejo and Sacramento, and women who labor in the hospitality industry, also drive long distances and aren’t paid minimum wage.
Even if they were paid a living wage they would not likely be able to afford to live in Sonoma County, which the botanist Luther Burbank described in a letter to his mother as “the chosen spot of all this earth.” Burbank implored her not to repeat his comment to anyone; if she did, he was afraid that loafers and alcoholics would descend en mass and destroy Sonoma. Chosen spots have a way of advertising themselves.
Once the best-selling author Jack London moved from Oakland to Sonoma and began to write about it in letters and in his novel The Valley of the Moon, there was no holding back the waves of migrants who came to farm, ranch, toil in the lumber industry or fish for salmon.
But even the optimistic Jack London knew hard times were coming. In The Iron Heel, he predicted the advent of a dictatorship in the U.S. and in The Scarlet Death he described a pandemic that obliterates most of humanity. Were he alive today he’d have plenty of material to inspire him, including the homeless problem, which has been described as “intractable.” Even charitable and compassionate Christians who help those who sleep under bridges and on the streets tell me “There will always be homelessness.” Still it has not always been a problem here.
It wasn't when I arrived in Sonoma County in 1975, just in time to observe the decline and fall of the apple industry, and the exodus of a generation of young people who couldn't see opportunity in their future if they continued to live here. My parents arrived before me, bought land, and joined the “back-to-the-land movement” which every so often goes through a rebirth. That cycle seems to have come to an end. Young wanna-be farmers flock to Sonoma only to find that they can’t afford to live or work here, and so they move to Oregon and Washington.
Fifty-five years ago Professor Raymond Dasmann wrote a polemical book titled The Destruction of California in which he warned readers that “the worst is yet to come.” He added that most Californians “have only a partial picture of their home state,” that “No person sees the complete picture” and that “The accepted picture is misleading.” In my home county, where hope has become a mantra, and citizens repeat ad nauseam, the slogan “Sonoma Strong” the homeless crisis—which officials have tried to hide and ignore— is a harbinger of a grim future Jack London might have imagined in a dystopian novel. He also would have urged Californians to try to see the whole picture and not accept the official version of the Golden State. Imagine the destruction of California? It won’t be a pretty picture.