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