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Rohnert Park breaks ground on 60-unit homeless housing site

Rohnert Park officials broke ground this week on the city’s first homeless housing site — a 60-unit facility set to be built using nearly $15 million in state funding.

The city last year announced the money from California’s Project Homekey program will go toward the project planned for a city-owned lot at 6020 Labath Ave., less than a mile south of the Graton Resort and Casino.

The site will shelter people for up to six months while providing on-site case management, mental health counseling and other services with the goal of finding residents lasting homes.

“We’re taking care of those that don’t have a place and fear for the lives — and are always wondering where will be my next place to sleep?” Mayor Jackie Elward said at Monday’s groundbreaking.

Construction at the currently empty lot, next to a fire station and two hotels, is expected to be completed late this year, officials said.

DignityMoves, a San Francisco-based nonprofit developer, will oversee construction of the prefabricated “modular” shelter. HomeFirst Services, a nonprofit based in Milpitas, will then operate the facility and provide wraparound services.

Unlike dormitory-style shelters such as Santa Rosa’s Samuel Jones Hall, Rohnert Park’s interim housing site will provide residents with separate rooms, as well as shared dining and recreation spaces, gardening and a computer lab.

“It takes time to find permanent housing; people need a safe, dignified place in the interim,” said Elizabeth Funk, chief executive of DignityMoves, in a statement. “The longer people are on the streets, trauma takes a serious toll, making future successful outcomes much more challenging.”

Homelessness has become an increasing concern for Rohnert Park residents in recent years, as the city’s estimated unhoused population has increased fivefold since 2015 to around 250 people.

Sonoma County’s total homeless population grew 5% during the pandemic to nearly 2,900 people, according to new data from a count of unhoused residents taken in January.

In response to the growing crisis amid a chronic local housing shortage, the Rohnert Park City Council in October voted 4-1 to seek funding for the site through the state’s Project Homekey program — over objections by Graton Casino operators and the two nearby hotels.

Launched in 2020, the $3.6 billion Homekey program gives local jurisdictions and tribal governments money to repurpose motels for homeless housing and to build new shelter sites. Billed as a relatively quick and cost-effective way to get people off the streets, the program is so far on track to help fund the creation of over 10,000 units statewide, according to state officials.

In Sonoma County, the state has awarded six projects a total of about $54 million to create around 300 units of permanent or interim homeless housing within the next year. Two of those sites are open at the former Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Inn near The Barlow shopping center.

To help pay for services at the Rohnert Park site, the city is tapping into a funding framework for Homekey projects set up by Sonoma County. That will provide $6.7 million annually over the next seven years to split among potentially eight Homekey sites.

The money would come from Homekey funds set aside for operating expenses, additional state homelessness grants and Measure O, the county’s voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax county for mental health and homelessness services.

Even with the county framework, Rohnert Park staff acknowledged the city may need to contribute additional local funds, though they expect the amount to be relatively small.

Construction on the new housing site comes as Rohnert Park earlier this year opened a sanctioned a homeless encampment at a commuter parking lot on Roberts Lake Road just east of Highway 101. In recent months, the camp has grown from around 20 tents to closer to 100, according to a recent count by a Press Democrat reporter.

Elward said there’s no timeline for closing the encampment, which has frustrated some neighbors and businesses. But she said the planned facility will be a key to helping homeless people living at the commuter lot find permanent housing.

“We have a long ways to go (to solve homelessness), and this is the first step,” Elward said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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