Jim Crawford and his fiancee were walking down the street in northern Santa Rosa one day last January, headed downtown where they planned to spend another night sleeping outside in the cold.
Crawford and his fiancee, Dana LeBlanc, had just left a motel where they often stayed for a few days whenever they could pull together the funds. The homeless couple had just checked out and, with no cash left even for a bus ride, was making a more than 2-mile trek down Mendocino Avenue.
Then Crawford received a phone call that would change their lives. A representative from Catholic Charities said he and LeBlanc would become two of the first new residents of the Palms Inn, a former motel on Santa Rosa Avenue being converted into 104 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people and homeless veterans.
For the first time in two years, Crawford and LeBlanc would be able to sleep every night in the same bed, with a roof over their heads and heat to keep them warm during the North Bay’s frigid winter nights.
“It felt like a load off my back, (like) maybe we have a chance,” said Crawford, 49, who has worked as a handyman and cares for LeBlanc, 29, who is disabled.
Sitting with her at a communal gathering space at the Palms Inn, Crawford emotionally recalled the day his and LeBlanc’s homeless ordeal began drawing to a close.
“For a long time, I was getting worried about having faith in humanity and losing faith in God. I never was really a religious man, but I hoped,” Crawford said, his voice trembling as he wiped tears from his eyes. “It was a blessing. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to (be homeless) for another year.”
Crawford and LeBlanc are just two of more than 140 people who have benefited over the last year from Sonoma County’s ambitious experiment to combat homelessness.
By providing low-cost permanent shelter to the county’s most vulnerable residents, the Palms Inn project has sought to demonstrate how the burden to public services can be eased — and the lives of the chronically homeless improved — when housing is provided first. Those involved with the project say it’s had a major positive impact, even as financial challenges remain.
When selecting people to move into the Palms Inn, Catholic Charities evaluated potential residents using the so-called vulnerability index, which assigns people a score based on criteria such as their contact with law enforcement and medical needs. Those with the highest scores were offered rooms at the former motel.
Six months later, the nonprofit re-evaluated people using the same index and found that among the formerly chronically homeless residents interactions with law enforcement dropped 77 percent, admittance to the emergency room and in-patient hospitalizations fell 45 percent and ambulance transportations were reduced 56 percent, according to Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ director of shelter and housing. Usage of suicide hotlines and other crisis intervention services plummeted 98 percent, Holmes said.
“Those are pretty powerful indicators, local indicators, of what housing can do for a population,” she said. “With the absence of housing, people are using our emergency response system more often, are using the criminal justice system more often ... We’ve seen a dramatic reduction of what resources people are using in the community.”