Palms Inn murder raises fresh questions about success of troubled supportive housing facility just outside Santa Rosa

An innovative “housing first” program when it opened in 2016, the aging former motel has struggled in recent years with facility issues, crime and reports from residents who feel neglected by social programming and property management alike.|

When Will Woodard moved into the Palms Inn, a privately owned but taxpayer-funded facility to provide housing and services that lift Sonoma County’s vulnerable off the street, he told friends it was a fresh chance.

“He had a place to rest his head, a stable roof over his head and somewhere he could improve his life,” said Jennifer Eversole, who once was homeless with Woodard and stayed in touch with him via social media.

Woodard moved into the facility in September 2021. He saw an opportunity to continue his culinary studies at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he’d been enrolled continuously since 2014.

Fourteen months later, he died violently there — succumbing to injuries at an area hospital after being stabbed repeatedly in his room under circumstances that remain clouded.

Prosecutors charged Skyler Rasmussen with murder. Rasmussen is a felon with a violent history who was not a resident at the Palms. He had walked away from a court-ordered drug-treatment facility six days prior. He has yet to enter a plea, and prosecutors have not revealed a suspected motive or any information about what Rasmussen was believed to be doing in Woodard’s room.

The murder has shaken residents of the former motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, just south of city limits, where gleaming big box stores give way to mobile home parks, variety shops and liquor stores. And it raises fresh questions about conditions at the facility — an innovative “housing first” program when it opened in 2016 — that has struggled in recent years with crime, facility issues, and reports of residents feeling neglected by social programming and property management.

Woodard brought awareness to some of those concerns. He was prominently featured in a May investigation by The Press Democrat that identified problems ranging from cockroach and mold infestations to break-ins and deaths where bodies weren’t discovered for days. There were four overdose deaths at the property in 2021.

The Dec. 13 homicide may be the first violent death at a housing facility for Sonoma County’s homeless population. Officials with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department could not recall another, nor could the director of Catholic Charities, the area’s largest homeless service provider.

“This was extremely unfortunate and tragic that occurred and the first fatal violent event at the Palms in the past ten years of ownership,” Palms Inn owner Akash Kalia wrote in an email Tuesday.

Woodard was popular among frequently homeless individuals in Santa Rosa and known to homeless advocates, according to interviews and messages received by The Press Democrat.

“I love that kid so much,” said Kim Hughes, a resident of St. Vincent de Paul’s housing facility on Mendocino Avenue. “He didn’t have that coming at all.”

His death outraged those who say problems at Palms Inn have been allowed to fester.

“What’s it going to take for the county to clean up this mess?” said Katrina Phillips, chair of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission. “Advocates have been asking is it going to take more death? Is it going to take a murder? And look where we are. It’s so heartbreaking.”

Experts said the challenge of facilities like Palms Inn is meeting the needs of residents coming off years on the streets and often carrying with them addiction, mental health and behavioral issues. That has to be balanced with maintaining an overall healthy and safe living facility. Palms Inn adheres to a “housing first” model, which focuses on getting people housed and their lives stabilized, and then providing supportive services. Nationwide, the approach is widely credited with helping people remain in housing, while reducing health care costs and incarceration.

“We are working with the most vulnerable population in Sonoma County,” Kalia wrote, “which requires collaboration from both residents and staff to participate in making this a safe environment.”

The point is to keep people housed and provide the independence of a tenant-landlord relationship, not to be a residential treatment facility. But residents also are supposed to receive services and be connected to programming that allow them to put the pieces back together.

“We have to respect that these are tenants and tenants have rights and responsibilities and individual choice,” said Jennielynn Holmes, CEO of Catholic Charities, who placed Woodard at Palms Inn and provided him with case management. She declined to discuss Woodard’s case management and programming.

Other residents and friends described Woodard as trusting and social. Neighbors and Kalia said he often brought people to his room at the facility, which residents said remains largely open to outsiders despite rules governing visitation.

“He helped a lot of people off the streets,” resident Junyette Warner wrote in a text message to a reporter. Warner lived on the opposite side of the building but spoke often with Woodard, she said, including the day before he was stabbed. “Will was a good person, hardheaded but most of his intentions were positive.”

Rasmussen was not known to staff, Kalia said, and residents he spoke to did not recognize him.

Housing placements at Palms Inn are approved by a number of government agencies, from the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County housing authorities to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In March, Sonoma County Housing Authority paused its placements to the property out of concerns about the physical state of rooms. Officials resumed sending homeless people in late May after remediation work started to show progress. Some residents still complain of roaches and mold, however.

It was too early to say if Woodard’s death will further impact placements, Housing Authority Manager Martha Cheever told The Press Democrat in a Dec. 14 email. “We are awaiting information and details about exactly what happened,” she wrote.

Holmes did not yet anticipate any major changes in light of the homicide and said Kalia was already improving security. But those changes were hampered in one instance by permitting and building code violations.

Warner, who is fond of the Palms and credited Kalia’s decision to convert his family motel into housing for homeless individuals with changing her life, wants to remind people there is also another side to the two-story motel with open air walkways. The building is home to artists, musicians and many military veterans who deserve care, she said.

“Our community is filled with a kaleidoscope of people... the one thing about us all is that we all experienced homelessness and that the Palms gave a roof and a chance to learn how to deal with becoming part of the world again,” she said.

Owner seeks to stabilize

As the owner of the Palms, Kalia receives about $1.4 million each year in rent. Residents’ monthly payments, ranging from about $1,100 to $1,250 per unit, are largely covered by federal housing vouchers, which are distributed by local housing authorities. But tenants kick in, as well — they are expected to pay 30% of their incomes. Kalia’s profit off the facility is unclear. He operates as a for-profit business and has declined to share his salary.

Catholic Charities and the Department of Veterans Affairs rely on public funding to connect residents with mental health support, drug counseling and other care. The VA provides services at 50 units occupied by veterans at the property, while the rest of the 104-unit complex is occupied by formerly homeless civilians served by Catholic Charities. The Palms currently has around 100 residents, Kalia said.

Kalia took property management over in March after parting ways with Burbank Housing, one of the area’s well established affordable housing building and management nonprofits.

Burbank officials at the time told Press Democrat reporters when they took over management in July 2021 they were stunned by the levels of mold, cockroaches and crime. They blamed the poor conditions on Kalia’s lack of investment. Kalia disputed their account and said the property suffered under Burbank’s management.

“I’m outraged by the situation out there, and something needs to be done. It cannot continue,” Larry Florin, Burbank’s chief executive, said in April.

Since May, when The Press Democrat investigation published, the Sheriff’s Office has fielded 209 calls for service at The Palms Inn over a 235-day period, spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

As prosecutors prepared their case, outgoing Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the murder puts a spotlight on both the Palms Inn and the county’s response to homelessness writ large.

“It’s not delivering what was promised,” Ravitch said of the Palms. While her office had not analyzed how many prosecutions track back to crimes at the facility, “anecdotally we hear about all kinds of drug abuse, property crimes and crimes against people there.”

Security has been Kalia’s “main concern” since taking over management in March, he said.

Despite Kalia’s renewed focus, security remained a concern for residents as recently as mid-September. On Sept. 15, Michael Titone from the group Homeless Action emailed Kalia on behalf of a group of advocates from various organizations and asked for a meeting to discuss “serious safety issues” raised by Palms residents. Despite Kalia’s willingness and some back-and-forth communication about a meeting time, the groups were unable to get together, Titone said.

Kalia has installed two dozen cameras and a security fence around the property, he said last week. “We will continue to make necessary changes needed to make the Palms safer,” he wrote, and called the model a “fluid, ever evolving program.”

Woodard did not follow policies around visitors, Kalia said, which require guests to be checked in at the front desk. Rasmussen was not checked in, Kalia said.

But the new fence was built without proper permitting. A resulting stop work order from county planning officials kept Kalia from electrifying the gates, and so they stay open, including a wide gate across the parking lot.

Kalia is working with the county to resolve the issue, he said.

Kalia described Woodard as a tenant with multiple lease violations whose room had received police visits before his death. He also suggested in a statement the day of the homicide that Woodard was “a known fentanyl dealer,” a charge friends and neighbors interviewed by The Press Democrat disagreed with.

Kalia declined to comment further on the remark, and said he would leave it to law enforcement to discuss any possible drug-related element to the crime. And on Tuesday, a week later, he said he was not “able to clearly articulate everything... right after that traumatic event.”

Several residents, including a neighbor, said they had not heard Woodard was a drug dealer, and certainly did not believe he was one of any stature.

“Will is always broke,” said Carina Flores, who works as a cashier at a Rotten Robbie gas station down the road from the Palms Inn.

“He lives off food stamps; that’s all he buys is food,” she said. “He was so kind and sweet.”

Woodard did not have a significant criminal record or any previous drug distribution charges. He was charged twice with misdemeanor drug offenses in 2020 and both were dismissed. The Press Democrat found no criminal record since October 2020.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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