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The onus of homeless aid in Red Bluff falls on the community

Randy Dueck stands beside his truck filled with food to be delivered in Red Bluff, Calif. on May 17, 2024.
Alec Stutson
/
NSPR
Randy Dueck stands beside his truck filled with food to be delivered in Red Bluff, Calif. on May 17, 2024.

It's 6:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and Randy Dueck is loading his pickup truck with hundreds of pounds of food from FoodMaxx. Meat, milk, juice, bread and boxes of baked goods fill dozens of milk crates stacked precariously in the truck bed. It's food the grocery store would normally throw away, but is still good to eat. So, Dueck takes it to people in need.

Dueck runs the nonprofit Salt Ranch. Three days a week, he delivers the food to the poor and the homeless throughout Tehama County, including delivering emergency food boxes by appointment. People from across the county text him if they're in need of food, so his route changes constantly.

"I've always helped when I see people in need," Dueck said. "Even when I was in the midst of my drug addiction, I would go and find food sources and take it to the parks and homeless camps and the single moms in town."

Dueck used to be addicted to methamphetamine, and sold it as well. He went to prison, and said re-committing to his faith got him through those times. Now he's been off drugs for more than 30 years.

"God brought me out of it," Dueck said. "And because I've been there and done that, people can tell … They can see that there's hope."

"We gave them trash, and expected them to make a better life of it." — Cody Strock, Red Bluff Councilmember
— Cody Strock, Red Bluff Councilmember

Dueck's first stop today is Samuel Ayer Park. He drives his White 1998 Chevy Silverado deep into the wooded property to a barbeque pit that spits smoke up into the morning air. It’s in the center of a clearing, and surrounded by a scattering of tents. Dueck cooks breakfasts here on Saturday mornings for those who live in the park, who he knows by name.

On the streets in Red Bluff

In 2022, the city of Red Bluff designated Samuel Ayer Park as a campsite for unhoused residents.

Then, after the county’s first local homeless shelter and navigation center — PATH Plaza — opened nearby earlier this month, the city removed a homeless encampment at River Park. It directed campers to go to the shelter or move to Samuel Ayer Park.

NSPR reached out to all five members of the Red Bluff City Council. Councilmember Cody Strock was the only one to respond. He said he hasn’t been happy with the way the city has treated unhoused residents, including moving them to Samuel Ayer Park.

"We forced those people to go down there with no basic utilities, no access to warm water, and limited restroom facilities," said Strock. "We gave them trash, and expected them to make a better life of it."

Randy Dueck sorts through a box of donated meat ahead of delivering it in Red Bluff, Calif. on May 17, 2024.
Alec Stutson
/
NSPR
Randy Dueck sorts through a box of donated meat ahead of delivering it in Red Bluff, Calif. on May 17, 2024.

The park and the county’s new shelter are the only two places in Red Bluff where unhoused residents can legally stay.

"[PATH Plaza] has 60 beds, so it's phenomenal what they have," Strock said. "But we have hundreds of homeless people that need somewhere to go, and they have nowhere."

The 2023 Tehama County point-in-time count found nearly 200 unsheltered people in Red Bluff — more than three times the maximum capacity of PATH Plaza.

Strock said he’s tried to introduce homeless aid proposals to the city council agenda, but said they have not been supported by the other members.

Red Bluff's City Manager Tom Westbrook said the city does not have any homeless aid programs in place or in the works. Additionally, he said there are currently no plans to clear other encampments, as they are not on city property.

"I'd say probably over 50% of the people that need help, that are homeless or close to being homeless, are unable to get help because of the boundaries that are set up …”
— Randy Dueck, pastor and founder of Salt Ranch

Last month the Tehama County Continuum of Care was awarded more than $14 million from Encampment Resolution Funding. A large part of the funding will go toward PATH Plaza. But Strock said more options, and more funding, are needed if the city is going to solve its homelessness crisis.

"Without real commitment, without policy written and funding applied, they're scooping water out of a boat with a tablespoon," he said.

Strock said that means it's up to community members to help their neighbors in need. The nonprofit Faithworks provides transitional housing and case management. But aside from PATH, it's the only other nonprofit in the area dedicated to fighting homelessness.

The rest of the aid comes in the form of food and meal services provided by local churches and individuals in the community.

Removing barriers

Dueck is vital to Red Bluff's homeless population, in part because he puts up no barriers like checking those he’s helping for sobriety or a criminal record.

"I'd say probably over 50% of the people that need help, that are homeless or close to being homeless, are unable to get help because of the boundaries that are set up," Dueck said. “I don't want to see your last two paycheck stubs.”

Ricole Nelson, who camps at Samuel Ayer park, sits next to the food she received from Salt Ranch on May 17 2024 in Red Bluff, Calif.
Alec Stutson
/
NSPR
Ricole Nelson, who camps at Samuel Ayer Park, sits next to the food she received from Salt Ranch on May 17, 2024 in Red Bluff, Calif.

A major challenge for many experiencing homelessness is drug use. Ricole Nelson, who's camping at Samuel Ayer Park, said her drug addiction is the primary obstacle for her to get back on her feet and off the streets.

Nelson said she hopes to get clean. For now she’ll stay at the park, though she said it's recently been harder living there after the influx of new campers following the clearing of River Park.

"It's like overcrowded, and it's kind of like high school," Nelson said. "The different cliques, the different drama … It's just like a soap opera."

As Dueck pulls up to the park, he blasts the horn of his truck to signal his arrival. Nelson rounds up a few other people living in tents near hers and they gather around Dueck as he distributes meat, dairy and baked goods. Then he drives deeper into the park for more deliveries.

"I want to be like Jesus. I don't think Jesus, when he fed the 5,000 … checked people's tax returns,” Dueck said. “They were hungry, and he fed them.”

Alec Stutson grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Radio Journalism, 20th/21st Century Literature, and a minor in Film Studies. He is a huge podcast junkie, as well as a movie nerd and musician.