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Bennett Valley residents are in an uproar over a tentative plan to turn the old Warrack Hospital campus into housing for young adults who are homeless or aging out of foster care, a plan some residents say would lead to hardened criminals coming into their neighborhood and possibly causing mayhem.

In fliers circulated around the relatively affluent southeast Santa Rosa community and at a forum that packed an elementary school auditorium last month, residents conveyed concerns that the facility would have them fearing for their personal safety or that their property values would decline.

Social Advocates for Youth, which is considering taking ownership of the campus on Summerfield Drive and expanding services, has sought to reassure neighbors that the 18- to 24-year-olds who would find temporary housing and other support services there would not represent threats to anyone.

That so far has not mollified critics, who are ramping up opposition before SAY has yet to submit formal plans for the site.

"It's significant and it's unusual," Chuck Regalia, Santa Rosa's director of community development, said of the outpouring over a project that has yet to land at City Hall.

Advocates say Bennett Valley is the ideal place for what SAY is dubbing the "Dream Center" because the neighborhood is safe and has access to public transportation. In addition, Sutter Medical Center is offering the roughly 52,000-square-foot campus to SAY for free.

But Community Unite, an organized group of Bennett Valley residents, presents the Dream Center as a potential nightmare, one they contend would increase crime, decrease property values and diminish the area's overall quality of life.

A flier circulated around Bennett Valley prior to last month's forum at Yulupa Elementary School warned that the SAY facility would bring in young people who have "histories of gang involvement, drug addiction and/or violent criminal convictions." Another flier stated that Community Unite's "simple" goal is to "protect our families, homes and neighborhood."

More than 200 people attended the forum, which at times felt like a pep rally.

"Is Bennett Valley a great place to live?" asked one of the night's presenters.

"Yes!" came the resounding reply.

"Keep it that way!" someone shouted.

One woman shared concerns that drug counseling at the Dream Center would expose neighborhood children to drug "paraphernalia" and "blood-borne illnesses." A man recounted being robbed four years ago and said Bennett Valley "already has enough crime."

Others referenced concerns about secondhand smoke wafting from the facility, a potential negative impact on local businesses, and youth trekking through neighborhoods to get to nearby county and state parks.

SAY says every housing applicant at the Dream Center would undergo background checks and have to sign an agreement to not use drugs or alcohol on-site. No one convicted of a felony would be allowed in.

But some Bennett Valley residents say those policies overlook juveniles whose criminal records aren't open to the public, or visitors to the campus who won't be as rigorously screened.

"I don't know what these kids have done," wealth manager Dave Wachter said at the forum. His comments drew some of the loudest applause of the evening.

Only a few people stood to defend SAY's plans. One was Jill White, who said the young adults served by the agency don't have the opportunities that kids living in Bennett Valley do.

"I have an 18-year-old starting at UT-Austin. But if I didn't have $26,000 a semester, I don't know where he'd be," White said.

Another woman noted there was never this much fuss when Warrack Hospital was in operation.

Since the forum, Community Unite members appear to be making an effort to soften some of the more pointed concerns about the Dream Center's potential clientele.

Lisa Banks, a stay-at-home mom and designated spokeswoman for the group, said this week that Community Unite's concerns are not with the Dream Center's projected "population," but with whether the facility is a good model for addressing residents' needs.

"The only thing about the people we care about, is if that facility will achieve success for the youth," she said. She said if it does it will be a "win-win" for the community.

SAY has never faced such blowback in the 42-year history of the organization, which is one of the largest of its kind in Sonoma County serving more than 2,500 youth and young adults annually.

Matt Martin, SAY's chief executive, said he can't understand why there is so much "fear" coming out of Bennett Valley around young adults who he said want what everyone else does — a home and a job — and simply need help achieving those goals.

He said the Dream Center "is not a drug rehab center. It's not a group home. It's not a low-security prison. It's affordable housing."

Martin said SAY would not offer a drop-in homeless shelter at Warrack. The agency has a six-bed facility on Ripley Street for that purpose.

SAY also would continue to operate Tamayo Village, which opened eight years ago on Yulupa Avenue — about a half-mile away from the Warrack campus — and offers temporary housing for up to 25.

Martin points to Tamayo as evidence the Dream Center could work in Bennett Valley. Tamayo is a few hundred feet from an elementary school, but Martin said the school's administration didn't know the facility existed until recently.

"We've been good neighbors," he said.

SAY said the Dream Center's typical client would be someone like Francis Welch, who landed in foster care when he was 16 after his mother died in jail and his grandmother passed away.

"When I turned 18, my structure disappeared and I had no one to depend on. My only option was to go on the streets," Welch said.

He found housing and support at Tamayo Village and now, at 24, is working for SAY as a program coordinator.

Welch said SAY clients are looking to escape trouble, not cause it. And he said just like residents of Bennett Valley, they don't want to "live in a neighborhood stricken with poverty and danger."

Both sides in the debate have accused the other of spreading false information or withholding details about SAY's plans.

"We've received incomplete and deflective answers from SAY regarding the population that would be living here," said Russell Wyatt, a retired California parole agent who lives in Bennett Valley.

SAY staff and volunteers canvassed the Bennett Valley neighborhood last year and also addressed concerns about the project at a "pre-application" meeting at City Hall in May. About 50 people attended the meeting, Regalia said.

"Maybe we didn't walk far enough or maybe the general population of the neighborhood is now figuring out the scope of the project," said John Meislahn, president of SAY's board of directors.

Meislahn, who is an executive at Exchange Bank, said it's "evident that we need to get a communication person that's dedicated to this so that the community is involved."

SAY posted a fact sheet on the agency's website to specifically address concerns raised by Bennett Valley residents. Staff also are hosting tours at the Warrack site and at Tamayo, to give people a sense of what would be offered at the Dream Center.

Sonoma County's population of homeless youth continues to rise. The last count two years ago found 701 young people without a permanent home, up from 268 in 2009. Tamayo, as of February, had a waiting list of 22.

One of the most contentious issues is how many youth and young adults would be served by the Dream Center. SAY's original plans called for housing for up to 100 people, but that's since been revised.

The current plan calls for no more than 63 units by the third year of the center's operation. The facility would start with 40 units, according to Martin, who noted that Warrack Hospital had space for 69 patients.

Most of the units would offer "apartment-style living" to 18- to 24-year-olds, many of whom have aged out of foster care. Residents would pay modest rent and have to be involved with SAY's programs. The agency estimates the average stay would last 18 to 24 months.

SAY's administrative, counseling and employment offices also would move to the facility, offering services to youth and young adults ages 5 to 24.

Martin could not provide a timeline for when SAY might submit plans to the city. The agency, which already has offices at the Warrack campus, would need a conditional use permit for on-site housing. The agency also is likely to seek to rezone the entire property to accommodate future services.

That assumes SAY's board of directors votes to accept Sutter's donation before the Nov. 30 deadline. The agency has hired consultants to study the center's feasibility.

Meislahn said the cost to renovate Warrack ranges from between $2 million and $4 million. He could not provide an estimate for ongoing operational costs, which he said would have to be covered by grants and donations. He said SAY currently pays $8,000 a month to rent offices on Airway Drive.

Community Unite members are calling for the Dream Center to be vetted with a full environmental review that includes a "socio-economic" report on the impacts of the project on the surrounding area.

"This is going to be a contentious and controversial project. I don't want any shortcuts at any level," said Wyatt, the retired California parole agent.

Wyatt, who oversaw state programs that linked former inmates with community services, said the Dream Center would be too large to effectively manage the needs of its residents.

That opinion is shared by Michael Fraga, a Santa Rosa psychologist who accepted Community Unite's invitation to address last month's forum on the subject of child welfare and community licensing for care facilities.

Fraga, who was a founding board member of Kids Street and the Valley of the Moon Children's Home in Santa Rosa, said the Dream Center would harken back to the days of institutionalized care.

"We don't do facilities of that size anymore for a lot of good reasons," he said.

Fraga also expressed dismay at the rhetoric surrounding SAY's project, saying there "needs to be more honesty from all the players about what's really doable."

At last month's forum, Fraga told the audience that the focus shouldn't be on the center's residents. "It's not an axe to grind with kids," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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