Bennett Valley residents are in an uproar over a tentative plan to turn the old Warrack Hospital campus into housing for young adults who are homeless or aging out of foster care, a plan some residents say would lead to hardened criminals coming into their neighborhood and possibly causing mayhem.
In fliers circulated around the relatively affluent southeast Santa Rosa community and at a forum that packed an elementary school auditorium last month, residents conveyed concerns that the facility would have them fearing for their personal safety or that their property values would decline.
Social Advocates for Youth, which is considering taking ownership of the campus on Summerfield Drive and expanding services, has sought to reassure neighbors that the 18- to 24-year-olds who would find temporary housing and other support services there would not represent threats to anyone.
That so far has not mollified critics, who are ramping up opposition before SAY has yet to submit formal plans for the site.
"It's significant and it's unusual," Chuck Regalia, Santa Rosa's director of community development, said of the outpouring over a project that has yet to land at City Hall.
Advocates say Bennett Valley is the ideal place for what SAY is dubbing the "Dream Center" because the neighborhood is safe and has access to public transportation. In addition, Sutter Medical Center is offering the roughly 52,000-square-foot campus to SAY for free.
But Community Unite, an organized group of Bennett Valley residents, presents the Dream Center as a potential nightmare, one they contend would increase crime, decrease property values and diminish the area's overall quality of life.
A flier circulated around Bennett Valley prior to last month's forum at Yulupa Elementary School warned that the SAY facility would bring in young people who have "histories of gang involvement, drug addiction and/or violent criminal convictions." Another flier stated that Community Unite's "simple" goal is to "protect our families, homes and neighborhood."
More than 200 people attended the forum, which at times felt like a pep rally.
"Is Bennett Valley a great place to live?" asked one of the night's presenters.
"Yes!" came the resounding reply.
"Keep it that way!" someone shouted.
One woman shared concerns that drug counseling at the Dream Center would expose neighborhood children to drug "paraphernalia" and "blood-borne illnesses." A man recounted being robbed four years ago and said Bennett Valley "already has enough crime."
Others referenced concerns about secondhand smoke wafting from the facility, a potential negative impact on local businesses, and youth trekking through neighborhoods to get to nearby county and state parks.
SAY says every housing applicant at the Dream Center would undergo background checks and have to sign an agreement to not use drugs or alcohol on-site. No one convicted of a felony would be allowed in.
But some Bennett Valley residents say those policies overlook juveniles whose criminal records aren't open to the public, or visitors to the campus who won't be as rigorously screened.
"I don't know what these kids have done," wealth manager Dave Wachter said at the forum. His comments drew some of the loudest applause of the evening.
Only a few people stood to defend SAY's plans. One was Jill White, who said the young adults served by the agency don't have the opportunities that kids living in Bennett Valley do.
Resources To Help
North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373
NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655
Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181
For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org