Sonoma State dorms readied to take in at-risk homeless people amid coronavirus crisis

Elected leaders in Rohnert Park have questioned the need to transform SSU into a pandemic staging ground and raised alarms about sheltering homeless people on campus.|

Private security guards shifted their gaze under shade trees Monday morning near the Sauvignon Village student housing complex at Sonoma State University.

Workers from a fencing company were surrounding the complex with fencing, complete with an opaque barrier. Come Wednesday, the units, long since vacated by students amid the coronavirus crisis, will be home to 35 vulnerable members of the Sonoma County homeless community. Eventually, 150 will call the Rohnert Park campus a temporary home as officials seek to protect at-risk residents from the deadly disease, COVID-19.

“This whole effort is related to COVID-19,” said Barbie Robinson, Sonoma County’s director of health services and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, the county’s lead homelessness agency. “It’s an opportunity to bring people into safety.”

The SSU campus, chosen this month by the county as a staging ground to assist in the local fight against the pandemic, could house up to 580 people - and more than 700, if needed -for up to five months, in an effort to alleviate any strain on local hospitals and homeless shelters.

The final preparations related to the $5 million agreement between the university and Sonoma County were being put in place Monday.

The deal calls for the campus Recreation Center, across a parking lot to the east of Sauvignon Village, to take in as many as 200 patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms. The center was already surrounded by fencing Monday. A security guard stood near portable restrooms and a sign-in sheet hung from the chain-link barrier.

Two weeks ago, the California National Guard was called in to set up beds on the gymnasium floor, signaling an unprecedented shift in campus’ role in the pandemic.

But with just one person with COVID-19 hospitalized on Monday, elected leaders in Rohnert Park are questioning the need and raising alarms about sheltering homeless people on campus.

The city put out detailed information on its website following a council meeting Friday where emotions ran high.

“I have some real concerns about what this county is doing at Sonoma State,” Rohnert Park Councilwoman Pam Stafford said during the meeting. “Really, what they’re doing is moving homeless people there. So I just have a lot of questions about when this is over, how do they let homeless people out, do they come into the community?”

Chief among the concerns was the sense, among some on the council, that the move wasn’t properly communicated, and those concerns have made their way to county supervisors, including Shirlee Zane, whose third district takes in the campus.

“I’m going to check up on that,” Zane said. “I was really clear to staff that we need to reach out to neighbors.”

Robinson said she has had Rohnert Park staff on a local homeless task force working through her department’s emergency operations center since April 6. She also disputed the notion that the at-risk residents struggling with homelessness would be left on the streets following the county’s use of the site.

The goal, Robinson said, is to make sure residents have options once the contract runs its course, even if she knows not every resident will accept shelter. Some who will be housed at SSU have been living in existing shelters. Others were on the streets, including in Rohnert Park. All are 65 years old or older, and have underlying health conditions that make them uniquely vulnerable to severe symptoms should they contract the coronavirus.

“We would never just turn them out on the streets,” Robinson said. “It’s important that we give good community information, that we don’t stoke fears for the community.”

The SSU site will be run much like the Los Guilicos Village sanctioned encampment in east Santa Rosa on the county’s juvenile justice campus. That indoor/outdoor shelter, which has a capacity of 60, is also fenced off, with staff monitoring the comings and goings of residents while offering a variety of services, including food, health care and access to state and federal benefits.

“Really, this is an opportunity for people to get that next chance,” Robinson said.

For now, the setup is expected to last as long as there’s a local shelter-in-place order, a statewide order, and the governor’s order that counties shelter their vulnerable homeless populations, Robinson said. She could not provide a full list of contractors set to work with the population, but said it is lengthy, including such groups as the North Bay Veterans Resource Center.

The county’s agreement with SSU lasts until June 6, but it can be extended another 90 days in three, 30-day increments if both sides agree. The full, five-month term of the contract lasts until Sept. 6, beyond the typical start of the fall semester in mid-August.

Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County public health officer, said she expects the campus Recreation Center to be used, despite the low COVID-19 census at area hospitals. She said it’s a site for people to isolate from family or await testing in quarantine, or for those who feel sick and need to be watched.

“As we have cases, we want to be able to offer them a place where they can be while they’re infectious,” Mase said Monday. “It would be a way of limiting transmission.”

Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed to this report.

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