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Rex Bishop, one of the first homeless veterans to move into The Palms Inn — a former motel now fully converted into permanent housing for homeless people — has only had his new room in Santa Rosa for two months, but he has already become an ambassador for the project.

Bishop says receiving permanent housing restored his hope that he could make it. The Vietnam veteran became homeless last year when his longtime partner died and he could no longer afford his rent.

He began sleeping in his car, then depression set in. His health spiraled out of control and he lost 40 pounds in just a few months.

“When Rudy died, my appetite died with him,” said Bishop, 64. “But since moving in here, the light inside me is burning brighter and brighter every day.”

Bishop is one of about 120 formerly homeless people who have moved into The Palms since February. The last resident moved in last week.

The transformation of the former motel on a downtrodden stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue into permanent housing is seen as a model in Sonoma County for addressing homelessness, especially among veterans.

The project provides each resident with a case manager and access to support services, including mental health care, substance abuse treatment and job training.

“We need to do more of this in Sonoma County so we can house our most vulnerable residents and those who have served our country,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We know there are other hotels and motels being underutilized. It’s criminal that we ask somebody to serve their country and then not provide something so basic as housing and health care, especially when so many have experienced trauma.”

Zane, whose district includes The Palms, said she wants to see the project replicated at other Santa Rosa Avenue motels, as well as in other cities across the county. She acknowledges that it could be challenging — converting The Palms into housing for the homeless took six months and required buy-in from the county, the city of Santa Rosa, the property’s owner, Catholic Charities and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The idea, first envisioned in 2014, moved forward in October when the Board of Supervisors agreed to defer more than $17,000 in county permit fees to convert the property into single-room occupancy lodging, a type of housing more common in larger cities like San Francisco.

Under the project’s arrangement, property owner Akash Kalia is the landlord, and receives income from the tenants, who pay 30 percent of their income for rent.

Most pay their rent with federal low-income housing subsidies provided by Santa Rosa housing officials. Meanwhile, Catholic Charities and the VA provide support services, property management and around-the-clock staffing.

More than half of the residents at The Palms are veterans, and many of them are disabled.

“It’s becoming such a great community,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

Holmes credits the project with also housing many elderly people who were homeless for years.

One of those people is John Graham, who goes by “Grahmmy.” The 67-year-old was homeless for 14 years and lived in a tent in Santa Rosa for much of that time.

Coffey Park Chronicles

As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Read all of the stories online here.

“I’ve been blessed, honestly,” he said on a recent day from his room at The Palms.

Since opening in February, residents have begun building a vegetable garden, assembling a reading and crafts room and coordinating weekly music and art therapy classes. Substance abuse classes are held regularly and eventually, a satellite health clinic will be on site, Holmes said.

Officials touted the project as a success in providing much-needed housing for homeless people at a time when the cost of living in the North Bay continues to rise. Low housing availability and skyrocketing rents have contributed to homelessness in the county, officials have said.

This year’s homeless count, conducted on one day in January, identified 2,844 homeless people — an 8 percent decline since the previous year’s count, according to county officials.

Homelessness among veterans, however, increased 27 percent over that period.

“The main problem is the lack of housing supply,” said Kym Valadez, who operates the local veterans housing voucher program for the VA.

“That’s one of the reasons we pushed so hard for The Palms to open. We had so many veterans with vouchers and nowhere to use them. When the market tightens up and capacity gets low, landlords can ask whatever they want in rent and people will pay it, and they can turn away people with vouchers.”

Valadez said prior to The Palms’ opening, 80 veterans had housing vouchers and were not able to find a landlord to accept them. The Palms is housing 66 of those veterans, most of whom served during the Vietnam War era.

Today, about 30 veterans with housing vouchers are still looking for a place to live, Valadez said. She said many lost homes during the recession and remain homeless.

“So many people I’ve met lost everything in 2008 and 2009,” she said. “And if there is no family or social support, people just got used to being outside. People have lost their place in society, and opportunities disappeared. Then, if people have disabling conditions, many times they stay marginalized.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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