Sonoma County gives homeless residents 15-day notice then reverses course

After 15-day notices of closure to vacate were issued Monday, county officials changed plans a day later and will extend stays for hotel residents.|

County officials this week informed people living in two hotels that have served as emergency shelter for at-risk homeless people during the pandemic that they must leave by March 15.

The 72 residents of the Astro Motel near downtown Santa Rosa and the Holiday Inn in Windsor were handed sheets of paper Monday, effectively giving two weeks notice to some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

County officials changed plans a day later, and on Wednesday evening newly appointed Department of Health Director Tina Rivera told The Press Democrat they would extend the stay at the Windsor hotel to April 15 and offer beds there to Astro residents.

While county health department officials insisted the closures, due to the expiration of federal emergency funding, have been known about for months, the March 15 date surprised and alarmed people staying at the Astro, according to two current residents and the relative of two others.

David Trask, a diabetic amputee who has been staying at the motel since February 2021, said in a phone interview that the notice “was right out of the blue.”

“They just knocked on the door, here’s this paper, they told us it was the 15th and you have to be out,” he said.

County officials say residents were informed in mid-January, and caseworkers have been working to help secure alternative housing.

“They absolutely should not have been (surprised),” by the notice on Monday, Rivera said.

Rivera heard from caseworkers Tuesday that they would not be able to place the 72 people by the deadline, she said, and immediately sought to extend the stay at the Windsor.

Residents of the Astro without placements would be moved there while caseworkers continue searching for permanent supportive or transitional housing. There are 25 people in the Astro as of Wednesday and 47 in the Windsor hotel.

County officials are looking for placements in substance abuse treatment centers and permanent supportive housing sites, Rivera said.

“No one will be turned back on the streets,” she said.

She was unable to say how many people may end up in group shelters if other beds can’t be found. Everyone who was staying in the two hotels will continue to receive case management until they find more secure housing, she said.

The Holiday Inn and the Astro are two of the four hotels county officials are using to shelter at-risk homeless people during the pandemic.

The county purchased the Sebastopol Inn and the Hotel Azure in Santa Rosa, however, and converted them to permanent shelter sites. The Windsor Holiday Inn and the Astro were always intended as temporary shelters for members of the county’s homeless population whose health conditions left them vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.

As the pandemic persisted, the federal government repeatedly extended funding, driving the county to renew contracts with hotels and the private medical company that manages the sites.

Some residents have lived in the hotels for a year or longer.

While social workers and site staff have talked about a potential March 31 ending to the program, Astro resident Travis O’Hara said, it was always couched as just a possibility given the number of extensions. A March 15 exit date was never discussed, O’Hara and others said.

“My case worker said we’re not going to just put you out you on the street,” O’Hara said, “don’t worry about it. Then all of a sudden we get these notices …”

On Wednesday, O’Hara, who is 50 and has type 2 diabetes and needs a sleep apnea machine, was trying to sign himself up for a bed at Sam Jones Hall, the largest group shelter in the county. Residents there sleep in several large rooms instead of having their own space.

O’Hara worried he might still catch COVID-19 in the shelter, which has seen two major outbreaks of the virus.

“COVID is still going on,” he said. “It’s pretty messed up.”

Such fears were precisely what Rivera said the county sought to avoid in its treatment of a population where people often carry significant trauma from past experiences. The county didn’t want people “scared, traumatized and thinking that they’re going to be sent back to the streets because that is absolutely inappropriate and not true,” she said.

Monday’s notice also appeared to surprise DEMA Consulting & Management Inc, the for-profit company the county has been contracting with throughout the pandemic to manage the sites.

In an email to employees Tuesday morning, DEMA co-owner Micah Pangborn informed staff of impending layoffs and wrote that the papers handed to hotel residents were the first confirmation the company had received “in writing” that the two sites were closing.

Pangborn’s email, which was obtained by The Press Democrat, started by acknowledging that “rumors have been going around about site closures,” and stating that the company had been awaiting official notice before informing workers.

“I feel you guys deserve to know what is going on and want you all to know our silence about closures is only because we are still in the dark,” Pangborn wrote.

But in separate interviews Tuesday afternoon, both Pangborn and her wife and co-owner Michelle Patino, denied they were caught flat-footed by the county’s announcement.

“We are 100% not in the dark,” Patino said. Both her employees and the motel residents knew the closures were coming, she said, even if an extension remained a possibility until the end.

“We don’t sugarcoat anything,” she said. “Whether they choose to believe that is on them.”

Two DEMA employees who declined to be named said there’s been widespread confusion in recent weeks over the future of the two sites. Much of the limited information DEMA staff have received has come from residents themselves, who received updates from their county caseworkers.

The county’s notice to residents said the closure came following a notice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they would cease funding for the program.

“While this change will be significant, we are here to support you in coming up with alternative plans,” the notice read. It directed residents to link up with county caseworkers for assistance. “Please do not wait to March 15, 2022,” the notice concluded, “it is best to pursue alternative shelter and housing plans as soon as possible.”

The Press Democrat had been asking Department of Health officials for information on the process to close the sites in repeated emails beginning Feb. 10. County officials did not provide any answers to those inquiries until this week, after the newspaper obtained a copy of the notice to residents.

Lisa Robbins, general manager of the Astro Motel, which before the pandemic was a boutique property known for its retro styling, said she has begun taking commercial bookings for as soon as April.

The county’s contracts with the hotels dictated that they return the properties to the hotel owners in the condition they began the program in, Rivera said, a cleaning process she estimated would take two weeks.

On the whole, the temporary housing program has been a success that both kept vulnerable residents safe during the pandemic and opened a road to better long term outcomes for many, Rivera said. The hotels allowed social workers access to a vulnerable population, who, at least for a time, had largely stable housing.

“We have seen individuals just flourish,“ Rivera said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at

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