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Sonoma County begins housing dozens of formerly homeless residents

Residents have already moved into the former Hotel Azura site, now renamed as Mickey Zane Place.|

Following a successful campaign to secure a $25 million annual sales tax boost for county mental health and homelessness services, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane was offered a special honor: a chance to name the county’s newest supportive housing site, the former Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa.

Zane didn’t want it named after her, and there’s already a property serving homeless veterans named after her father, World War II veteran John Zane.

So when 11 residents in mid-December became the first to move into the 44-room hotel, it was named for Zane’s mom.

Welcome to Mickey Zane Place.

Mickey Zane never lived in Sonoma County, but Shirlee Zane has spent much of her adult life here, serving seniors as CEO for the Council on Aging before her 12-year stint on the Board of Supervisors, a run that will end in next week.

“It was a way for us to honor her legacy and all of her hard work,” said Barbie Robinson, Sonoma County’s chief homelessness official.

The $7.9 million, 44-room downtown building is one of two former hotel sites targeted through the statewide Project Homekey grant program, and now both are poised to serve dozens of homeless residents, sheltering the vulnerable population from the ravages of COVID-19 and providing permanent supportive housing once the pandemic subsides. The other, the Sebastopol Inn, which the county spent $6.2 million to purchase, will welcome residents into its 31 rooms starting this week. County officials were mum on a new moniker for that site.

“There’s no rest for the weary. Now it’s about doing the work to help support people in their lives,” said Robinson, Department of Health Services director, and interim executive director for the Community Development Commission. “It’s a new opportunity, a second chance for many. … I’m grateful.”

In the past two weeks, more than 20 residents have moved into Mickey Zane Place, marking for many the first sign of stability in a year of upheaval. In its quest to shelter older homeless residents, many with underlying health problems, county officials struck a deal with Sonoma State University in early April, shortly after the coronavirus was first detected in Sonoma County.

When that partnership ended in July, the county scrambled for alternative sites, including the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Camp Meeker in west county, the tiny homes at Los Guilicos Village in eastern Santa Rosa and the Astro Motel in downtown Santa Rosa — sites the county will continue to utilize at least until next summer, Robinson said.

The newfound stability is huge, Robinson said, especially for residents suffering from significant medical problems.

“For some, this could be their last place, given some of their health conditions,” Robinson said, adding that she was heartened that those residents would not be forced to endure those maladies while living on the street.

At every location established since the start of the pandemic, shelter has been coupled with services, ranging from multiple daily meals to health care and aid in finding work.

For Zane, the combination of shelter and services is a winning formula.

“Permanent supportive housing is the answer to homelessness,” Zane said. “People need shelter and they need those services for them to stay there. Without the services, it’s like giving somebody a bed to sleep in but with no blankets.”

Altogether, the county expects to spend $27.3 million to buy, renovate and operate the two hotels for the next two years, and about $16 million of that will come from the state’s Project Homekey, a $1.3 billion grant program aimed at curbing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

A portion of the county’s operating costs will come from federal housing vouchers, which the county helps homeless residents secure, according to county documents. Other funding, county leaders have said, may come from the voter-approved Measure O, a new quarter-cent sales tax to pay for more mental health and homelessness services for which Zane fundraised and campaigned heavily.

The county’s push to secure the former hotel sites has been welcomed by some, but has upset others. In downtown Santa Rosa, where Mickey Zane Place joins a growing portfolio of homeless services, St. Rose neighborhood residents have objected to what they see as an escalating burden on their neighborhood.

In Sebastopol, the county’s bid to purchase one of just two full-scale hotels promises to cut into tax revenues, and has raised concerns among some residents wary of its impact on a thriving downtown shopping district. The Barlow, the town’s highest rent district, sits just across the street from the Sebastopol Inn.

Other residents, as well as city and county leaders, have praised both locations amid countywide efforts to continue a two-year trend of reduced homelessness.

“This is part of the call of those that serve in the safety net to bring these kinds of services and programs … to hopefully make a significant dent in our point in time count in reducing homelessness,” Robinson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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