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Walk the corridors of this former hospital off Hoen Avenue, and it's easy to imagine a safe haven for homeless young people. Sweep away the dust and cobwebs, haul away the random pieces of medical gear, apply a coat of paint, add a bank of showers and a communal kitchen and you're good to go. Each hospital room becomes its own low-rent apartment.

Clearing away the political obstacles won't be so easy. As a community, we live with our contradictions. We want to help others so long as there are no intrusions, real or imagined, on our own lives.

And so a plan to transform the former Warrack Hospital into a housing and service center for disadvantaged young people has lingered for more than a year while a local nonprofit, Social Advocates for Youth, tries to convince neighbors that they have nothing to fear.

Sutter Health, which shuttered the hospital in 2008, is offering to donate the buildings, which SAY would use for administrative offices, counseling, tutoring, job and health services for children 5 to 24, and emergency and transitional housing for young people 18to 24 who are homeless or aging out of foster care. It would be called the Dream Center.

From countless other neighborhood controversies, we know how this goes.

Someone proposes a project -#8212; apartment complex, school, park, residential treatment facility, hiking trail, hospital helicopter pad or even a hospital -#8212; and then tries to persuade the neighbors that it will be OK.

The neighbors who aren't convinced warn of dire consequences and demand more studies. A few are moved to impugn the motives of the sponsors with an angry subtext that reads: You wouldn't allow this in your own neighborhood, but you're happy to put it in ours.

In turn, the neighbors are called NIMBYs, people who just don't want anything to change in their backyard.

And so on.

Early in the new year -#8212; perhaps as early as Jan. 23 -#8212; the Santa Rosa Planning Commission will begin to sort through the usual arguments and weigh the risks and rewards.

Along the way, city officials will be told: If you approve the project, you don't care about this neighborhood. And, if you reject this project, you don't care that kids are living in harm's way.

Welcome to public service.

In an op-ed for these pages, two Bennett Valley residents, Dr. Larry Gilbert and Charles Jensen, said they have "grave reservations" about SAY's capacity to operate the center.

Some critics even questioned SAY's capacity to keep its promises -#8212; unfamiliar territory for a 42-year-old organization that has long enjoyed widespread community support.

In another op-ed, Judge Gayle Guynup, a former SAY board member, made note of the organization's success in operating two other youth facilities and pointed out that residents will be carefully screened. She also warned against the notion that the residents would pose a threat to the neighborhood.

"First," she wrote, "we have to overcome our own fears and ignorance. Most homeless youth are not criminals, gang members or otherwise despicable. In most circumstances, our homeless youth are the victims of their parents' misfortune, neglect, poverty or incapacity."

In an economy that continues to struggle, what we know is that the number of chronically homeless people is increasing, and about a third of them are under 25 years old. These are children and young adults trying not to be overwhelmed by economic and social hardships. You may find them late at night under bridges, in cars, or in the crawl spaces between buildings.

The latest census pegs the number of homeless youngsters at about 1,200, but the actual number is higher. It's not possible to track all of the children and young adults who are bouncing from place to place, or who may be homeless at some time during the year.

Five years ago, Warrack Hospital became a casualty of changing technology and the changing economics of health care. Sutter Health is building a new hospital in north Santa Rosa.

For SAY and the community it serves, the abandoned hospital becomes a unique opportunity. There are not many empty buildings waiting to be repurposed at a price a nonprofit can afford.

No one can guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen at the Dream Center any more than we can be sure that nothing bad will ever happen at any gathering of human beings.

But while we try to resolve the neighborhood's issues, it's no less important to remember what SAY is trying to accomplish.

Imagine that people -#8212; you and me -#8212; could decide whether 63 young people would be allowed to live on the street without food or shelter or family support.

Well, no they can't, we would respond, because we understand the consequences, measured in human suffering and the impacts on neighborhoods, too.

But those 63 homeless youngsters (and hundreds more) already exist. They're out there right now, sleeping in the cold, living the kind of hardscrabble existences that lead to desperation and failure.

As the new year begins, we're only waiting to find out whether someone will be allowed to help them.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>