After 2 years at Sebastopol hotel, COVID-vulnerable homeless people ousted for more vulnerable

The county’s urgent need to create permanent housing for the most vulnerable homeless people has collided with the halting process of people who were formerly homeless struggling toward more secure circumstances.|

January 2021, in the thick of the pandemic, was a good month for Douglas Stenberg.

Then 61, Stenberg was ailing from heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and more than four years of living in cars and shelters. But he was also one of nearly 30 people deemed at high-risk for COVID-19 and offered a room at a motel in Sebastopol that Sonoma County had purchased to turn into housing for vulnerable homeless people.

He moved into the former Sebastopol Inn — renamed Elderberry Commons — and made Room 201 his own. He paid no rent and was supplied with three meals a day.

That July, he bumped fists with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who visited the property to tout the state’s Project Homekey initiative, which funneled billions of dollars to counties to turn hotels, motels and other facilities into housing for homeless people during the pandemic.

Once housed, Stenberg cleared his debts, he said this month, and found a job as a shuttle driver for River Rock Casino, though he was laid off in December due to reduced demand.

Now, he and his Elderberry Commons neighbors must move out. The county’s urgent need to create permanent housing for the most vulnerable homeless people has collided with the halting process of people who were formerly homeless struggling toward more secure circumstances.

Sonoma County officials are preparing to renovate the 31-unit building into permanent housing for homeless people considered to be the most vulnerable across a number of criteria, who have federal housing vouchers, and who need ongoing supportive services such as case management.

“We’re all disabled. We’re in shock. We were told it was permanent, every one of us,” Stenberg said. “We cried with happiness that we had permanent housing.”

The Sebastopol Times first reported on the county’s plans for Elderberry Commons.

Grid-locking the system’

Of the 20 people still living at Elderberry Commons on Tuesday, seven have been there more than two years; seven between a year and two; and the others for up to a year, said Dave Kiff, director of the Homelessness Services Division at the county’s Department of Health Services.

What will happen to the residents? It’s not completely clear. Either they may end up homeless again. Or, they definitely will not. They may qualify to return to Elderberry Commons, but there’s no guarantee.

“It is very difficult,” said Kiff. “We're trying to transition the system into a system that works better. And I wish we could carry everyone along into housing throughout that process. But this is a case where we may not be able to. We’re going to do our darnedest, though.”

Kiff added he is “totally sympathetic” to the current residents’ plight, but that the county is in a tough position, with a responsibility to transform transitional housing into permanent supportive housing for its most vulnerable homeless residents. He also noted that the agreements Elderberry Commons residents signed when they moved in established that the facility was transitional, which documents bear out.

He said the lack of permanent housing units is “grid-locking the system of care“ because people ready to move out of transitional housing have nowhere to go.

“The issue is the larger population,“ Kiff said. ”We have hundreds of people who are highly vulnerable, who have not been in Elderberry Commons and who have been outside or in shelters, who are entitled to permanent supportive housing based on their vulnerability. And these units are reserved for them.“

In mid-February, County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose 5th District includes Sebastopol, said she would not support any plan to move current Elderberry Commons residents out unless alternative housing is lined up for them.

“We will find housing for folks,” Hopkins said. “I have been on the phone directly with (Department of Health Services) Director Tina Rivera. She is very clear that every single resident of Elderberry Commons will be matched with a housing option.”

Rivera, in an email, said that most of the residents “qualified for mainstream vouchers (people between age 18 and 62) and are being connected to leased housing options throughout the county. Some are able to move into their own apartments with ongoing case management support … while some will be moving into scattered site housing with supports.”

Scattered site housing is private market housing with case management and other services provided by the county.

A county spokesperson, Gilbert Martinez, said residents may end up being relocated to housing sites including, but not limited to, Los Guilicos Village, the Palms Inn (if they request it), and the county-run emergency tent camp located at the administration complex in Santa Rosa, which opened last week to accommodate people who had been camping on and were told to leave the Joe Rodota Trail.

Los Guilicos Village is a complex of 60 individual pallet shelters on Highway 12 across from Oakmont. It was opened in 2020 to shelter homeless people previously forced off the Joe Rodota Trail.

Palms Inn is a privately owned permanent housing facility in Santa Rosa whose residents receive supportive social services; it has been criticized by some residents and advocates for homeless people as neglected and unsafe.

Martinez said another option is Mickey Zane Place, a 44-room former hotel in downtown Santa Rosa that the county also purchased with Project Homekey funds around the time it bought Elderberry Commons.

Some of Elderberry Commons’ most medically vulnerable residents have already been moved to Mickey Zane Place, Kiff said.

Desperation to excitement

Elderberry Commons residents, meanwhile, say they are living in a state of uncertainty.

One resident, who gave her name as Lynn — she said she has heart disease, asthma and difficulty walking — went from desperation to excitement last week, after being awarded a voucher. But, now she has to find both an apartment and a landlord to accept the voucher, no easy task in a tight housing market.

“I still feel like I’m on the roller coaster. There’s highs and lows, nothing is for sure and finding a place is the next step, and that’s not been so easy for people,“ she said, asking that her real name be withheld because she did not want to embarrass her children with her homeless status. ”There’s still a big step to go.”

Residents learned they had to move out in the beginning of February. They were given the unvarnished news in a letter lacking official insignia from the county Department of Health Services, which was either delivered by hand or slipped under their doors.

The letter said: “It’s been our privilege to work with you. At this time, we are preparing for the construction of Elderberry Commons. It is of utmost importance to us that we support you in your efforts to find housing. Kindly note by Feb 28th, those with housing vouchers will need to leave. Anyone who doesn’t have a voucher will need to start preparing and looking for other residency by March 31st final move date.”

in mid-February, residents were given two more weeks — until April 14 — before they have to be out. (In a sign of the communication gaps that seem to have characterized the process, several residents said that until they learned otherwise from media reports, they believed the date had been extended to April 30.) After several weeks of what residents described as minimal attention, housing counselors have been at the facility daily to work with them on their options.

While mindful of what Elderberry Commons residents are going through, Kiff at times betrays frustration.

“They get three meals a day. They get medical care and they don't pay for utilities. So this has been why, you know, I'm struggling with it on multiple levels,” he said.

“There are a lot of Sonoma County residents that would have given their eye teeth to have lived there for a year or two years and be able to save up and prepare for their next housing step,” he said. “But for some of these folks, it didn't happen.”

Waiting lists, no guarantees

Stenberg said he is “more than grateful” to have lived with such support for two years. But he has tried without luck for two years to get a housing voucher, and he still cannot afford a place to live in Sonoma County on his limited Social Security income, he said, especially now that he is again unemployed.

"I jumped through every hoop and obeyed every rule for the last several years in this program. Now they're just going to try to dump us off into whatever they can,“ he said.

If they want to return to Elderberry Commons, current residents will have to apply through a program called coordinated entry. This system prioritizes people who are homeless for permanent housing based on medical and other factors, such as the length of time they’ve been homeless and whether they have a disability; those with the most acute needs go to the top of the list.

The system is intended to, among other things, prevent favoritism and preserve equality of opportunity for scarce housing.

However, even people at the top of the eligibility list do not automatically get the vouchers they would need to move into a property such as Elderberry Commons — they have to apply for them. And, in many cases, getting one is no guarantee of housing; voucher in hand, people have to find available housing and a landlord willing to accept it.

Stenberg said he’s been on the county’s waiting list to get a voucher for about two years because he was under the impression that the property was to be remodeled and turned into voucher-based housing — and that existing residents would be able to remain as tenants if they had vouchers.

“I wanted to be ready,” he said.

Martha Cheever, the county’s Housing Authority manager, said the current voucher waiting list, created in October 2021, has 447 households left on it and is expected to be drawn down by the end of 2023, at which point a lottery will be held to select the next wait list. In 2021, Cheever said, 4,204 households entered the lottery; 750 were chosen.

A ‘screwed up’ system

The circumstances can lead to despair.

“The system is screwed up,” another Elderberry Commons resident, Diane — who asked that her full name not be used because she has been a victim of domestic violence.

She said she has gone from living in her car at a safe parking location, to living for a year at Los Guilicos Village, to Elderberry Commons to this new uncertainty. She is on waiting lists for housing sites in Healdsburg and Petaluma, but hasn’t been told her place on those lists, she said.

“After running the maze of the homeless industrial complex here in Sonoma County to no avail, I am just waiting to die,” she said, adding that she has health conditions including diabetes, osteoarthritis and high blood pressure.

Diane said she had been offered a room at the Palms Inn, but called it “a no go,” citing safety concerns.

Both the Sebastopol and Santa Rosa properties were purchased with mostly federal funds channeled to counties through Project Homekey, inaugurated in 2020 at the height of the pandemic emergency.

Sonoma County used $6.3 million in Homekey funds to buy the Sebastopol Inn. The motel that became Mickey Zane Place, the Hotel Azure, cost the county $7.9 million in Homekey funds. The county has yet to determine its long-term plans for that property, Kiff said.

The permanent housing that Elderberry Commons is to be turned into will be funded primarily through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which issues the housing vouchers tenants will need to move in, Kiff said. The county intends to transfer ownership and management of the property.

Burbank Housing, a major, regional nonprofit affordable housing developer, has submitted a proposal to assume ownership of Elderberry Commons, and for West County Community Services, a Guerneville-based nonprofit social services agency, to manage it. The county is to consider that proposal in April.

One advocate for homeless people said the Elderberry Commons situation demonstrates that the county often has to resort to piecemeal reactions to repeated crises and needs to develop a better comprehensive strategy to address homelessness.

“It speaks to what happens with these vulnerable individuals and how our county funds are expended,” said Arthur George, chair of West County Homeless Advocates. “Where do these millions of dollars go and what do they accomplish in terms of solving the big problem?”

He cited years of repeated clearings of homeless encampments on the Joe Rodota Trail — the most recent of which took place last week — as another example of a homelessness policy in need of overhaul.

(The county in December adopted a five-year strategic plan to “prevent and end homelessness.” It set a goal of creating more than 1,000 permanent housing units or beds over the next five years.)

Kiff said he is “pretty confident” that his staff will be able to find remaining Elderberry Commons residents some form of housing outside the shelter system.

“But a lot depends on the willingness of the tenants there to do what is tough work,” he said. “They have to be in a place of trust. They have to be in a place of being willing to change what has been a truly nice living arrangement for them.”

Tuesday afternoon, Stenberg said he’d learned from a housing counselor that he would not be getting a voucher because he’s beyond the federal age range for eligibility.

“I’m going to dig my heels in, I got nowhere to go,” he said. “My only case is to come home to the locks changed, and a sheriff waiting, and then I have to go live in my car.”

Martinez, the county spokesperson, said because of privacy reasons he is unable to comment on anyone’s specific case. But, he added: “Everyone who lives there lived there for a reason. We’re unaware of anyone who doesn’t qualify for some sort of assistance.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or On Twitter @jeremyhay

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.