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