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First homeless residents move into Sonoma State University amid coronavirus pandemic

Edward James, 62, leaned back against his blue Suzuki sedan, one hand on the driver’s side door as he peered over his mask Thursday morning at two women collecting information.

Just beyond the shadow of a large shade tree, in a parking lot on the north side of the Verdot Village student housing complex at Sonoma State University, the women from North Bay Veterans Resource Center asked questions and jotted notes.

Among the questions: Where did you sleep last night?

“My car,” James said.

Following the intake questionnaire, Mary Hanes and Marty Kimes guided James past security guards monitoring an opening in a newly erected, 6-foot fence and toward a room inhabited by college students some six weeks ago.

James was the first of what’s expected to be a group of 150 homeless people who will be accepted into temporary housing at SSU following state and federal guidance to protect a population that’s particularly vulnerable to complications related to COVID-19.

The temporary residents will all be older or suffer underlying health conditions, requirements imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the county for the expense, according to health officials.

“Many individuals have been on the street for many years, and have underlying medical conditions or are over 65,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s chief homelessness officer. “It has been critical to have our outreach teams working to identify folks and bring them into the system of care.”

The unprecedented move is a piece of the county’s larger strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Sonoma County signed a contract with SSU in early April to access hundreds of rooms after Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out an ambitious plan to boost statewide hospital capacity by 60,000 beds to brace for a surge that so far has been largely avoided statewide, including in Sonoma County.

The deal with SSU, valued at up to $5 million, also gives the county access to the campus Recreation Center, which is set up with dozens of temporary beds for patients with mild to moderate symptoms. The county also obtained space at Sauvignon Village, which will house people in isolation who are awaiting COVID-19 test results.

As of Thursday evening, three people with pending test results were being housed at SSU and five residents struggling with homelessness had checked into rooms. Health officials said they expect another 11 homeless residents to check in Friday.

Residents at Verdot, which features four-bedroom suites, will be housed with family or friends, as opposed to being isolated, officials confirmed Thursday.

The county’s contract with SSU is set to end June 7, but can be extended 90 days to Sept. 7 in three, 30-day increments if both parties agree. SSU will have the final say under the contract, and university spokesman Paul Gullixson said it’s unlikely the contract would go into the fall.

“It’s very unlikely that we are going to extend it, as our current plan is to be back in normal operation in August,” Gullixson said, adding that SSU officials are still reviewing data and state and local guidance on the matter.

Santa Rosa Junior College announced Thursday it would extend the shutdown of its campus through the end of 2020, offering courses online only in the fall.

Sonoma County has also signed a contract with Petaluma Health Center to staff the Recreation Center, and is working with the North Bay Veterans Resource Center, Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul to serve the homeless population at the campus.

Health officials were not able to immediately provide contract details for all of the nonprofit agencies providing services.

The veterans group, part of the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Veterans Resource Centers of America, provides housing, behavioral health treatment and case management for veterans struggling with homelessness at 14 locations in California, Arizona and Nevada. It typically focuses exclusively on veterans, said Chris Cabral, the nonprofit’s chief administrative officer.

“Our ultimate mission is to serve those who are vulnerable,” Cabral said. “(The county) needed our help to serve this population, and we stepped up to do it.”

The contract, worth roughly $4,750 for the first 10 days and about $3,300 per week for the next five weeks, requires the North Bay Veterans Resource Center to coordinate with other providers and perform intake functions, which include working with residents to fill out the intake forms, assigning rooms, going over the rules and providing a room key.

All incoming residents will be asked the same questions. The resulting data will be tracked by service providers and county officials, who hope to provide other transitional living arrangements or permanent housing for the residents after SSU facilities are no longer available.

“We’re hoping this is the beginning to help … these individuals have greater well-being and greater self-sufficiency,” said Robinson, director of the county’s Department of Health Services and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, the county’s main homelessness agency. “We see this as an opportunity under these trying circumstances.”

James didn’t have much time to talk after the intake questionnaire. As he threw his belongings over his shoulder in a red, nylon bag, James turned to speak. He said he learned about the opportunity through a friend.

When asked if he was happy to have the place, even if temporarily, he said “Sure.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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