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Plan to convert hotel into housing for homeless worries some Santa Rosa neighbors

Thirty years ago, the St. Rose neighborhood of Santa Rosa became the city’s first historic district, featuring blocks of charming old homes centered around the St. Rose Catholic Church just north of downtown.

But over the past decade, the pocket of Santa Rosa with blocks of Arts and Crafts-style bungalows and Queen Anne Victorians that have housed generations of downtown residents has also evolved into a hub for homeless services — one that stands to grow denser under a new county plan.

County officials — operating largely behind closed doors — are moving forward to purchase the Hotel Azura that sits on the northeast corner of the St. Rose neighborhood, at the intersection of College and Mendocino avenues. If the county goes through with the purchase in the next few months, it would turn the 42-room hotel into permanent housing with on-site services for people experiencing homelessness.

Just blocks to the south, on St. Rose’s southern border, an even larger project is proposed by Catholic Charities, a $123 million development with Burbank Housing that will feature 126 apartments for low-income renters and shelter space for up to 210 homeless people. That project, named Caritas Village, already has earned approval from Santa Rosa officials and is expected to begin construction next year.

A block away, off Wilson Street on the west side of Highway 101, St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County and the Redwood Gospel Mission, have sites that are long-standing destinations for homeless people needing food and overnight shelter.

The growing concentration of those service providers has irked some residents of the residents in the St. Rose district and adjacent West End neighborhood on the west side of Highway 101.

Kathy Farrelly has lived on Lincoln Street in the St. Rose district for 40 years, raising her kids there with her husband and then watching as younger couples moved in nearby and started families of their own.

Streets filled with playing children are fine and good as far as Farrelly’s concerned ‒ she doesn’t mind fishing the occasional soccer ball out of her backyard. What she does mind is the sight of people urinating openly and having to step around feces and needles on nearby sidewalks.

“We’ve always loved this neighborhood," Farrelly said, ”and I hate to see this happening.“

It is not uncommon to find someone sleeping on your porch or wandering around in an apparent break from reality, said Denise Hill, also a longtime St. Rose resident. Some residents carefully route their strolls through the area to avoid confrontations with people living on the streets. Getting to downtown on foot can be difficult as a result.

“We turn left. We don’t turn right. Because you just don’t know what you’re going to find under the freeways,” Hill said. “We feel like we’re getting more and more isolated.”

The Caritas Village project would replace two existing facilities operated by Catholic Charities: the busy drop-in center on Morgan Street, and the Family Support Center just across the street from the Santa Rosa Plaza mall.

There’s also steady traffic in the form of homeless people seeking services in the nearby West End facilities operated by St. Vincent de Paul and the Redwood Gospel Mission as well as The Living Room to the north on Cleveland Avenue, Hill said. And the neighborhood has been book-ended in recent years by occasional encampments that became entrenched underneath Highway 101 along Sixth Street and College Avenue.

Hill, who works as a sales assistant for Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, cited a January email to her and her husband from Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who told the couple she was "very much aware that the West End has taken the brunt of our homeless issue, especially with the predominance of the services providers being located there.“

Zane, in an interview, said the county didn’t set out to add another homeless service provider to the neighborhood.

But the Hotel Azura’s owner was the only one that showed interest in selling when the county assessed its options. Officials are moving quickly, hoping to secure purchase within two to three months, a timeline aimed to secure up to $15 million in state funding, Zane said.

“The way to get the people from out beneath the underpasses is to provide homes and services,” Zane said.

The Azura would be re-purposed as permanent housing with on-site services under the county’s plan, following in the model of the Palms Inn in south Santa Rosa that is being emulated by St. Vincent de Paul at the Gold Coin Motel in north Santa Rosa.

Although the Caritas Village project would further cement the southern St. Rose neighborhood as one of the main points of homelessness care in the county, Santa Rosa is actively trying to spread out some of its services. The city is considering an expansion of its safe overnight parking program for up to 100 people, and in doing so, staff is seeking spots in each of the city’s seven council districts.

Local homeless services should be spread not just throughout Santa Rosa but throughout Sonoma County to decrease the impact on neighbors, said Councilman Chris Rogers, who lives in the council district that includes the St. Rose neighborhood.

“What we’re still not quite seeing is adequate permanent services in other jurisdictions as well,” Rogers said, acknowledging that Santa Rosa didn’t have adequate shelter space for its local homeless population, either.

Rogers said he’s heard not outright opposition from St. Rose neighbors but requests for ways to decrease impact on their area, including the accumulation of trash and needles.

“It’s really easy for people to try to portray those neighbors as NIMBYs,” Rogers said. “I think that there’s a lot of resentment from neighbors, because they haven’t been saying ’Don’t put this in my backyard.’ They were saying, ’We already have this in our backyard.’”

Sonoma County’s most recent homeless census found a 7% year-over-year decline in homelessness. That drop came despite recent high-visibility of encampments — along the Joe Rodota Trail, underneath Highway 101 and lately in Fremont Park on Fourth Street. The count took place before the coronavirus pandemic, which has deal unemployment and economic pain to many, with the raising the risk of rising homelessness.

The county is set to host an August Zoom meeting in which neighbors can voice their concerns and their desire for a more proactive approach.

“I know the neighbors are angry,“ said Zane, who represents the area. ”We’re going to give them a chance to say what they need to say.“

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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