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.