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Gov. Newsom in Sebastopol to spotlight $12 billion in state aid for homeless services, housing

Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Sebastopol Monday morning to tout a $12 billion package to combat homelessness across the state — highlighting Sonoma County’s purchase of the Sebastopol Inn to permanently house homeless people as an example of the kind of effort the new funding will support.

Facing a staggering homelessness crisis and an impending recall election, Newsom was on hand at the former hotel to sign the unprecedented spending package into law as a trailer bill to the state’s recently approved budget.

About $5.8 billion of the new funding will go toward helping local governments buy hotels and turn them into permanent supportive housing through the state’s Project Homekey program.

In November, Sonoma County received roughly $16 million in Homekey grants that contributed to the purchase of the Sebastopol Inn, now named Elderberry Commons, and the Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa, now named Mickey Zane Place.

“This project is changing lives,” Newsom said of the Sebastopol Inn. “By the way, the project, they were able to get down into escrow and get people into housing in less than five and a half months.”

Currently, service providers are helping those living in the 31 available rooms at the former hotel across from The Barlow shopping center transition to other stable housing. But the goal is to eventually transform the site, which opened in December, into permanent supportive housing for up to 42 local homeless people.

Also included in the new package is $3.9 million to bolster behavioral health services, including mental health support at Project Homekey sites.

Additionally, $2 billion is set aside over the next two years for local governments to spend on their own homeless programs. To qualify for the money, cities and counties must submit plans with “quantifiable, data-driven goals” that they will commit to meeting.

“What we have partnered with the gov and others on is more resources and more accountability,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. “...We can take the money, but we have to be able to show that we are showing results, not only with our numbers, but to our community on the streets.”

The $12 billion in new spending comes as a result of the state’s nearly $76 billion budget surplus, fueled by tax revenues that surpassed expectations during the pandemic.

On Monday, Newsom said that after the one-time funding is spent, the state will look to the federal government to help continue any fledgling programs launched with the new money.

“We expect to and intend to bridge these commitments with additional federal support, and our advocacy at the federal level is second to none,” he said.

The state has also asked the federal government to continue covering costs for the over 10,000 temporary hotel rooms for homeless people at greatest risk of COVID-19. That funding is set to expire at the end of September, and the state has requested it be extended to next June, Newsom said.

That program, called Project Roomkey, will also receive $150 million in the state’s new spending package.

In Sonoma County, temporary use of hotel rooms for at-risk homeless people during the pandemic have included the Holiday Inn Hotel in Windsor, which launched in May, and the Sandman Hotel in Santa Rosa, which returned to regular operations in June. Those sites have actually been funded with local money, though officials expect the federal government will reimburse most of the costs.

Newsom praised the Roomkey program as essential to preventing COVID-19 outbreaks at homeless shelters, such as a recent spike of infections that affected potentially half of the 156 residents at the Sam Jones Hall in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s largest shelter.

“Roomkey was initiated to address precisely the issue that flared up just recently at a local shelter, that was to protect people in these congregant settings.”

Even so, the program has struggled to provide enough emergency housing for the most vulnerable among the roughly 160,000 homeless people across the state, including about 2,700 individuals in Sonoma County.

Claire Fulkerth, a formerly homeless resident who was able to find housing at the Sebastopol Inn, moved to the site in March after about two years living out of her car. Fulkerth, 37, said service providers at the former hotel helped her find a job as a caretaker at the Windsor Holiday Inn shelter.

“Having people to talk to 24/7, having people watch out for you, not feeling isolated — it’s been incredible,” she said. “It’s life changing.”

Staff Writer Alana Minkler contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

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