Sonoma County supervisors consider hotel purchase as SSU exit spurs search for homeless quarters
Dozens of Sonoma County’s most vulnerable homeless residents gathered in a courtyard Wednesday morning at Sonoma State University. On a bulletin board in the middle of the gathering hung sign-up sheets with the names of the county’s two largest homeless shelters: Sam Jones and Mary Isaak.
The elderly, infirm residents, who have been put up in student housing on the Rohnert Park campus since late April to safeguard them from the pandemic, had been told they had to be ready to leave with 24 hours notice. Now they had to choose between the two large shelters, both strained for capacity this spring as the pandemic hit, forcing managers to space out bunks and limit their head counts.
“People were just staring at that board, seeing that Sam Jones – that big hall, that negative experience,” said Gail Simons, a retired nurse and homeless advocate.
County health officials are relying on a patchwork of existing shelters as a stop-gap solution as they scramble to secure more permanent beds for as many as 114 vulnerable homeless residents that need to relocate from SSU dorms by a new deadline of July 17.
Separately, the county also is racing to secure hotel rooms by Friday for up to 11 coronavirus patients quarantined at SSU as part of a deal for student housing and gym space that will be reclaimed by the university as it gears up for an Aug. 18 start to its school year. Surge capacity space at the campus recreation center is permitted to remain available through Aug. 4.
On Thursday, the Board of Supervisors is poised to meet in a closed-door session to consider purchasing the 42-room Hotel Azura off College and Mendocino avenues in Santa Rosa to use as shelter space for at-risk homeless residents, including older individuals and those with pre-existing health conditions that put them at extra risk during the pandemic.
“The issue is urgent now to come up with Plan B or fully develop Plan B,” board Chair Susan Gorin said earlier this week. “I would think that we’re going to have something to inform the community and the board about on Thursday.”
Campus officials were clear as far back as mid-May that they didn’t intend to extend the deal for student housing beyond June 30. The final word came over the weekend as the county was unsuccessful in persuading campus leaders to change their minds.
With no backup plan in place, county officials have pieced together options for resettling homeless individuals at Sam Jones Hall in Santa Rosa and COTS’ Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma. Homeless people at SSU have also been offered temporary housing in cabins at Camp Meeker and tiny homes at the Los Guilicos Village encampment in east Santa Rosa, officials, residents and advocates said.
“People are already trickling in from SSU,” said Jules Pelican, director of programs for COTS, which manages the Mary Isaak Center, where space is available for at least 20 residents from the university. “Our outreach person is picking people up today. We are prepared. We want to stay cautious.”
The homeless residents brought to SSU are among the most vulnerable in the county. To qualify for the shelter, they must be 65 or older or have pre-existing medical conditions. Many qualify on both fronts.
Simons described many of the homeless residents at SSU as “frail” and “ill looking,” and county officials confirmed Wednesday that two have died due to preexisting conditions since the county opened the campus care site in late April.
The proposed purchase of the Hotel Azura could act as a suitable replacement, county officials hope, serving as a centralized shelter that would get more of the area’s most vulnerable homeless people off the streets while easing strain on the existing shelter network.
“We are working on a number of solutions with respect to our COVID-positive, COVID test-pending and unsheltered folks,” said Barbie Robinson, director of health services and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, the county’s lead agency on homelessness. “This would be focusing on supports for vulnerable homeless individuals.”
The move, which wasn’t communicated to Santa Rosa officials, has come up for criticism, and Councilman Chris Rogers urged his Facebook followers Wednesday to reach out to the Board of Supervisors to share their thoughts.
Messages left with Hotel Azura and the nearby Café Mimosa were not immediately returned.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @tylersilvy.