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Sonoma County advances bid to purchase hotel for homeless quarters

Sonoma County on Thursday agreed to to take a closer look at the potential purchase of a 42-room hotel in downtown Santa Rosa that would be modified and used to house the area’s COVID-vulnerable homeless population.

The decision comes as county officials respond to Sonoma State University’s refusal to allow the county to continue housing unsheltered people in student dorms.

In a closed-door session Thursday afternoon, the Board of Supervisors agreed to advance to the “due diligence” phase of negotiations, said Barbie Robinson, director of health services and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, the county’s lead agency on homelessness. That will allow county employees to take a closer look at Hotel Azura at College and Mendocino avenues.

What they find on the property will help county staff determine the condition of the hotel, whether it could be modified to meet their needs and how much they would be willing to pay for it, Robinson added.

“Once the due diligence is completed, it will be brought back to the board for public comment and possible approval,” Robinson said.

In the short term, the space would be modified and then used to house elderly and medically frail homeless people who need to isolate themselves during the coronavirus pandemic.

Down the road, the site could provide much-needed permanent housing to a wider swath of the county’s homeless population, including transitional-aged youth or individuals who are in the workforce but are without a place to live, Robinson said.

Supervisors hope to qualify for state funding that would reimburse the county for the majority of the purchase of the hotel, Sonoma County Board Chair Susan Gorin said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has made those funds available through a program called Project Homekey, Robinson said.

“It’s trying to figure out the next steps for those folks that have stabilized and used those services,” Gorin said. “To get them into permanent housing ... so that they can then be integrated successfully back into the community.”

The interest in purchasing Azura follows SSU’s decision not to renew a deal with the county to shelter medically vulnerable and elderly homeless residents in student housing on the Rohnert Park campus, where more than 100 unsheltered people have been put up since late April.

The county faces a July 17 deadline to get out of SSU’s dorms and an Aug. 4 date to vacate the campus rec center of surge capacity space as the university plans a mid-August start to its school year.

County staff already have identified several alternative locations for individuals living at SSU, among them the Los Guilicos Village homeless camp in east Santa Rosa that was approved to extend operations indefinitely during a board meeting Tuesday.

Councilman Chris Rogers, who lives in the council district that includes the Azura, said some neighbors have indicated their support for the county’s project. But he also said he’s heard concerns from many residents who live in the nearby St. Rose neighborhood and in areas near the hotel that they didn’t have an opportunity to adequately weigh in on the county’s effort.

Rogers also echoed another critique from neighbors: that many local homelessness services are concentrated around the St. Rose area just north and west of the city’s core. The area includes the drop-in center on Morgan Street and is near multiple other service providers located in the Railroad Square area.

“This is a communitywide issue, and it needs a communitywide response,” Rogers said. “Not just a St. Rose response, not just a downtown response.”

Robinson cited the proximity to nearby services as a benefit for the Hotel Azura site and said the community might be more inclined to support the project once they receive more information.

The county will have 90 days to examine the hotel, though Robinson said she hoped to return to county supervisors in early August with a public proposal for moving forward with the purchase of the hotel.

You can reach Staff Writers Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com and Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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