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Vic Trione, left, speaks, while incoming Catholic Charities CEO Jennielynn Holmes waves to an attendee with Rebecca Kendall on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at a ceremony for the opening of Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Catholic Charities’ long-awaited $53 million Santa Rosa homeless services hub, Caritas Center, opens

A brightly lit room with colorful cabinets and furniture on the ground floor of Catholic Charities’ new facility in downtown Santa Rosa will soon be filled with young children learning numbers, letters and shapes.

That is the vision behind the ambitious $53 million building, now in its final stage of touch-up before it opens next week as a long-sought, cutting-edge refuge for families in dire need of housing.

A family lounge area is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A family lounge area is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Homelessness can have a particularly disruptive fallout on childhood learning, and early intervention of the type planned at the 48,000-square-foot homeless services hub has been shown to reduce the chances of future homelessness, too.

“We love our kids but we don’t want to see them here as adults,” said incoming Catholic Charities CEO Jennielynn Holmes, her eyes beaming during a recent tour of the Caritas Center, the sleek 3-story building that now sits on the corner of A and 6th streets, north of the Santa Rosa Plaza.

Jennielynn Holmes, the incoming CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, poses Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, outside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Jennielynn Holmes, the incoming CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, poses Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, outside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Caritas Center includes nearly 200 shelter beds, a health clinic and a drop-in center where homeless residents can access shower and laundry facilities and meet with case workers.

When it opens on Monday, it will be the largest homeless services center in Sonoma County, replacing the 138-bed family shelter Catholic Charities runs out of the aging former General Hospital building next door.

“We want to provide services from a place of dignity and respect for the person, want to provide it in a way that is trauma informed, and built for the people that we served.” Jennielynn Holmes, incoming CEO of Catholic Charities

The center is part of the larger $120 million-plus Caritas Village, a city block-sized complex between A and Morgan streets that will also include 128 apartments for low-income renters being developed by Burbank Housing. Burbank has broken ground on the first phase of construction, 64 units, and will begin on the second phase when the family shelter is moved to the new space.

Catholic Charities on Friday celebrated the completion of the project with a ceremony to thank the community and donors — among them billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose charitable fund gave Catholic Charities a $5 million grant to operate the shelter.

The northern entrance of the newly built Caritas Center features two separate courtyards Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
The northern entrance of the newly built Caritas Center features two separate courtyards Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

With the project, Catholic Charities aims to serve a larger swath of the local population in need, while providing a wider array of support for those families and individuals.

Caritas Center will cement Catholic Charities, already the county’s dominant homeless outreach and shelter provider, as a regional leader in addressing homelessness. The organization wants to change how nonprofits engage with clients and raise the standard of care at Caritas, where they also hope to pilot different programs that officials hope reduces barriers to services.

“It’s an excellent example of the community collaboration required to bring a project of this scale to fruition,” said Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s homeless services manager. “The design and programming will provide a new level of dignity and care for our homeless community members, as well as enhance the City’s efforts to address homelessness.”

Construction workers eat lunch Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the drop-in center at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Construction workers eat lunch Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the drop-in center at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Expanded family shelter

Caritas Center features two wings separating the family shelter and services for unhoused residents.

The family shelter in the east wing has an intake area on the ground floor.

Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County will operate the Head Start program for children 5 and younger. Catholic Charities is partnering with the YMCA to provide services for older kids in a separate classroom.

Meals for families will be prepared in a large, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen with new stainless steel appliances that opens up to a dining room and outdoor courtyard with seating. Catholic Charities plans to operate a food distribution program from the kitchen, too.

The kitchen stands ready Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
The kitchen stands ready Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Families will live on the second and third floor. Each room is outfitted with three bunk beds with space for up to six people. There are eight rooms joined by an interior door for larger families.

There is one communal bathroom with a tub per two families.

Both floors feature a common room with a TV, seating area, small kitchenette and laundry room.

A single family room is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A single family room is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The shelter will serve as a temporary home for dozens of families. Prior to the pandemic, families typically stayed in the shelter for six months, but stays have been longer with the health crisis, Holmes said.

Catholic Charities hopes to reduce the number of families experiencing homelessness to what Holmes described as “functional zero,” meaning homelessness can be prevented in most cases and when it does happen it’s infrequent and brief, with the increased capacity in Caritas Center.

A classroom provides a study space for older children and a place for adult education classes Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A classroom provides a study space for older children and a place for adult education classes Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, at the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

One-stop service center

Unsheltered residents will be able to access shower and laundry facilities, receive mail and connect with case workers at a 6,000-square-foot drop-in center in the building’s west wing. The center has bike and storage lockers and pet kennels.

It features a quiet room where crisis managers can take someone who may be having a behavioral health crisis and can help deescalate the situation or where they can meet privately with victims of assault.

The daytime drop-in area is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
The daytime drop-in area is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Catholic Charities currently operates its drop-in center out of a small home that wasn’t intended to serve the 2,000 people the organization sees annually, Holmes said.

The Nightingale Recuperative Care Center has 38 beds for people recently discharged from a hospital who need continued medical care. It features small sleeping pods with two people to a room to create more privacy, rather than housing people in a more traditional, congregate setting that can be a deterrent to some people seeking help.

One of the "healing areas" in the Nightingale Recuperation Center is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
One of the "healing areas" in the Nightingale Recuperation Center is on display Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, inside the newly built Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

A health clinic with six exam rooms operated by Santa Rosa Community Health is on the second floor. The organization will provide primary care and low-level emergency services, and three mental health clinicians will be on staff.

Having health care on site will limit unnecessary and expensive emergency calls and keep people engaged in services, Holmes said.

A clinic run by Santa Rosa Community Health is located on the second floor of the Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A clinic run by Santa Rosa Community Health is located on the second floor of the Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The top floor will feature a transitional housing area with space for up to 14 beds for single adults who haven’t yet found housing. They will be allowed to live rent-free at Caritas and will be required to volunteer in the drop-in center as part of a peer-support program.

The west wing will also provide a central location for Catholic Charities staff, who currently operate out of a small Morgan Street office and at sites across the county.

A lounge and dining area for adult men and women helping to run the drop-in center at the newly built Caritas Center stands ready Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A lounge and dining area for adult men and women helping to run the drop-in center at the newly built Caritas Center stands ready Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Holmes said various security measures throughout Caritas will ensure clients’ safety. Electronic doors activated by key fobs provide secure access to the building and separate the family shelter from the adult wing. Bedroom doors are opened with a key pad. There will be staff posted at entrances and on each floor round the clock and security cameras installed throughout.

Catholic Charities director of financial stability and crisis response Amy Holter, center, talks about the Family Shelter Common Room Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, during a tour of the Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Catholic Charities director of financial stability and crisis response Amy Holter, center, talks about the Family Shelter Common Room Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, during a tour of the Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Caritas Center was approved by the City Council in March 2020 and construction began in January 2021. It was largely funded by a $34 million capital campaign, tax credits and construction loans, with financing provided through Poppy Bank. Among the donors were the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, St. Joseph Health and Kaiser Permanente, which each contributed $1 million.

Donor walls display the names of people throughout the community who have contributed to the newly built Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Donor walls display the names of people throughout the community who have contributed to the newly built Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

‘Huge moment of hope’

Caritas Center will be the first point of access for many unsheltered people living on the street to connect with Catholic Charities services and services provided by other agencies who will also have space on-site.

People could be referred to shelters like Sam Jones Hall, Santa Rosa’s shelter operated by Catholic Charities, and placed on the centralized housing list.

Work continues Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, on permanent affordable housing units being built by Burbank Housing as part of the new Caritas Village in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Work continues Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, on permanent affordable housing units being built by Burbank Housing as part of the new Caritas Village in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

“The idea is to have a one-stop shop to get all of their needs met when they come through our front door,” Holmes said.

The homeless population in Sonoma County grew 5% during the pandemic.

A point-in-time count of people living outdoors and in shelters in February found 2,893 homeless residents, likely an undercount, according to figures released by Sonoma County. That’s up from 2,745 unhoused people identified during the last count in February 2020.

The number of people living outdoors or in vehicles increased by 23% to 2,088.

Chris Stewart, center, talks about the Santa Rosa Community Health Clinic office Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, during a tour of Caritas Center in Santa Rosa.  (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Chris Stewart, center, talks about the Santa Rosa Community Health Clinic office Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, during a tour of Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Caritas Center was designed to serve more people and provide a better standard of care, Holmes said.

Often social service agencies inherit older buildings that are inadequate to serve clients’ needs. While the old hospital building has been a good home, it doesn’t “reflect the dignity” of the people served, she said.

Once clients have been transferred to the new Caritas Center, the existing Catholic Charities Family Support Center in Santa Rosa, right, will be torn down and be replaced with permanent affordable housing units. Photo taken in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Once clients have been transferred to the new Caritas Center, the existing Catholic Charities Family Support Center in Santa Rosa, right, will be torn down and be replaced with permanent affordable housing units. Photo taken in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

“(Caritas) cements how we want to address homelessness and how we want to provide services,” Holmes said. “We want to provide services from a place of dignity and respect for the person, want to provide it in a way that is trauma informed, and built for the people that we served.”

Holmes added Catholic Charities hopes it will become “a beacon for the state and the nation for how we can provide care if we want to get serious about addressing homelessness.”

Maria Gomez and her son, Michael Cardenas, center, cut the ribbon during the opening ceremony for Caritas Center, while flanked by Len Marabella, left, Vic Trione, Congressman Mike Thompson, California Senator Mike McGuire, and Jennielynn Holmes Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Maria Gomez and her son, Michael Cardenas, center, cut the ribbon during the opening ceremony for Caritas Center, while flanked by Len Marabella, left, Vic Trione, Congressman Mike Thompson, California Senator Mike McGuire, and Jennielynn Holmes Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Operations begin Monday with the opening of the drop-in center.

During a recent tour, crews hurried to put the finishing touches on the inside of the building, installing furniture and testing out the elevators as the smell of fresh paint filled the air.

A chapel space is located inside the newly built Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A chapel space is located inside the newly built Caritas Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Catholic Charities will move in staff and other services in phases. Small groups of families will begin to move in starting in October, Holmes said.

For Holmes, who takes over as CEO on Monday, this has been a labor of love seven years in the making. She was at a loss for words for how to describe what it meant to see the project nearly complete.

Miss California Catherine Liang, right, who grew up in Santa Rosa, talks with Lily Kendall, 7, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at a ceremony for the opening of Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Miss California Catherine Liang, right, who grew up in Santa Rosa, talks with Lily Kendall, 7, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at a ceremony for the opening of Caritas Center in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

“There were so many times when we didn’t know how we were going to take the next step,” she said. “It’s a huge moment of hope.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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