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An experiment is underway at a motel on a downtrodden stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue just outside the city limits.

If successful, supporters say it could provide permanent lodging for Sonoma County’s most imperiled homeless people and save taxpayers thousands of dollars per year by steering residents away from emergency rooms, jails and other high-cost treatment facilities.

Akash Kalia, a 24-year-old college dropout who left school in 2012 to purchase his parents’ floundering motel, is converting all 104 rooms at The Palms Inn into single-room-occupancy housing for homeless people and military veterans.

“Being where we are on the south side of Santa Rosa, I see the need for this on a daily basis — there’s a lot of people in this area who can’t afford housing, especially now in this market,” Kalia said. “I’ve had people stay at the hotel who can’t find anywhere, and it’s a mother, father and two kids and they’re working three jobs and they still can’t qualify for an apartment.”

Kalia said he moved back to Santa Rosa from Oregon to help his parents, who were struggling financially. He originally planned to run his motel, catering to construction and trade workers in town on temporary jobs. He changed his mind when he was approached by his attorney, Jenni Klose, a Santa Rosa City Schools trustee. She’d worked on a similar project in San Francisco, where a substandard, largely vacant building located at 250 Kearny St. was transformed into single-room-occupancy housing for homeless veterans.

“It was known as the ‘house of horrors,’” Klose said, referring to the San Francisco single-room-occupancy hotel that had a bad reputation due to its filth and squalor. “My clients purchased it and made the deal with the city ... I saw it when they signed the lease ... that’s where I got the idea.”

Kalia said he immediately saw an opportunity to fill a need in his neighborhood by replicating the model.

“There’s more to life than just making a bunch of money or running a business. It’s about helping others,” Kalia said.

When The Palms transformation is complete — it is expected to be ready for tenants in early January — it will provide 104 units for chronically homeless people who have been on the streets for years and for veterans who have struggled to find subsidized housing. Residents, who will pay up to 30 percent of their income, will be connected at the site with substance-abuse treatment, mental health care and other social support services.

The program will provide housing for 60 veterans and 44 homeless adults. The venture is a partnership between Catholic Charities, a local nonprofit, the local Veterans Affairs office and Kalia. Catholic Charities and the VA will provide specialized counseling for the tenants and 24-hour on-site case management. Kalia will retain ownership and lease the property to the two agencies. His income — from tenants’ low-income housing vouchers — is expected to be slightly less than what he’d earn from running the motel. He is also donating furniture and bedding to each of the future tenants.

Housing and services for tenants at The Palms Inn is expected to cost $1.9 million annually, with the bulk of the funding — $1.7 million — from state and federal sources.

County supervisors last week sought to fast-track the site’s opening so Catholic Charities could begin accepting tenants this winter. The board approved a $260,000 contribution to cover operational costs for the next six months. Catholic Charities is expected to cover those costs going forward.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the funding is urgent because the county’s shelters are at capacity and people sleeping outside this winter are at greater risk of developing potentially life-threatening illnesses.

“It’s cold out there, and it’s wet out there,” Zane said. “This is a precious opportunity. It’s not every day we get to create housing for more than 100 people who comprise our most vulnerable populations — homeless and disabled people, veterans and seniors.”

Zane said she wants to replicate the concept in other parts of Santa Rosa and on the same stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue, which falls in her district.

“It’s a great location for a hub for housing and homeless services,” Zane said. “I want to see this project be a model for other projects, other landlords.”

The Palms project is being developed around a national model known as “housing first,” adopted in Sonoma County last year. The idea is to provide chronically homeless people with housing, then link them with services and a case manager. The approach is widely credited with helping people remain in housing, while reducing health care costs and incarceration among people with mental illness and substance-abuse disorders.

An average inpatient hospital stay costs an estimated $4,000, according to county and hospital data. It costs $139 per day to keep someone in the Sonoma County jail, and roughly $117 per day for a detox facility.

By comparison, housing someone and providing counseling services costs $31 per day, according county figures. Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, said the project will help people with low-income housing vouchers get into a unit. Housing officials in the county and Santa Rosa said people with so-called Section 8 vouchers are routinely turned away when they apply for apartments.

“We’ve had $1.7 million in federal funding for the past year that we have not been able to spend,” Holmes said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to see that I could be housing veterans, housing the vulnerable, housing seniors, but I just don’t have the units.”

Holmes said she expects to begin notifying people this month that they qualify for housing at The Palms.

David Bozarth, a formerly homeless veteran who currently lives at Hearn House, a Santa Rosa-based 15-bed residential treatment program for veterans, said he is hoping he will be one of them.

“I’m having trouble finding a place with my voucher,” said Bozarth, who estimated he’s looked at 12 apartments over the past month. “People say they don’t want someone like me because they’ve had trouble with Section 8 people in the past ... One person said they didn’t want anyone hanging around the house all day. It’s frustrating.”

In addition to housing, Bozarth said he would benefit from social support and rehabilitation services. He is currently 11 months sober and in treatment for a drug addiction. He said he relapsed last year after being sober for 17 years.

“I bottomed out,” Bozarth said. “But now I’m both excited and hopeful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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