Santa Rosa motel converted to housing for homeless selects first resident

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It took less than two months for Rodney Hill to fall into homelessness after he got out of the Sonoma County Jail, where in 2011 he’d spent nine months for a probation violation. But he got used to it. Being homeless this time would be easier than last because he’d kicked his drug addiction, and anything was better than being locked up.

Hill, who has been homeless for nearly five years, said he was in and out of jail and prison from the time he was 25 to age 45.

“I know now that the end result of using is jails, institutions and death,” Hill said on a recent day outside Santa Rosa’s homeless drop-in center.

Now 51, Hill attributed the hard time he’d done to his cocaine addiction, a habit that he paid for by stealing outlandish amounts of money that netted him serious criminal fraud charges and time in Pelican Bay State Prison north of Eureka, then more recently in San Quentin.

“I’ve been in jail and institutions most of my life. I wasn’t ready for death,” Hill said. “But six months ago I would never have dreamed something like this was possible for someone like me.”

Hill has been named the resident manager of the newly converted Palms Inn in Santa Rosa — a first-of-its-kind housing program in Sonoma County that places homeless people and homeless veterans into permanent housing, then connects them with social support services. He was one of the first 104 residents to be notified that he qualified for a unit.

Hill, who stands more than six feet tall and whose commanding presence —developed during his time in the Army in his early 20s — has stuck with him all these years, is not easily rattled. But the promise of a safe, permanent place to live shook him.

“I started crying when I found out,” said Hill, who plans to move in later this month with his partner. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me — I understand it’s also a lot of responsibility.”

In exchange for rent, he will work as part of a leadership team overseeing general maintenance of the south Santa Rosa site, coordinating initiatives such as support groups and helping people navigate complicated health care and substance-abuse treatment networks.

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, which is spearheading the effort, said when the project started coming together, she immediately thought of Hill.

“Rodney is one of the hardest-working people I have ever met, and he has shown an extraordinary amount of leadership,” Holmes said. “Every day, he is out there exemplifying great behavior and helping hold people accountable.”

Holmes said Catholic Charities aims to hire homeless people and formerly homeless people for street outreach because they better understand and can connect with others who might be resistant to receiving help. Some homeless people turn down services because of stringent rules that may prevent them from living the life they choose.

Some shelters, for example, do not allow pets or significant others. Other places have zero-tolerance policies when it comes to drugs and alcohol. But Holmes argued that helping people into housing first can help people address underlying issues that can contribute to their homelessness.

“As a peer, Rodney can help people and relate to people who are moving into The Palms,” Holmes said. “We try to hire among our homeless population because we believe in that peer support model ... and Rodney shows exactly what we are trying to do — break that cycle of addition and recidivism.”

The Palms Inn is one part of a larger countywide initiative to build 2,000 permanent housing units for homeless people in the next decade, with the ambitious goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2025. Building those 2,000 units would cost $110 million, according to county estimates.

Permanent housing at The Palms is seen as especially critical during the rainy and cold winter months, said Holmes and county officials involved in the project.

“So many people are in harm’s way,” said Jim Leddy, special projects director for the Community Development Commission. “This is one way to help.”

Already this winter, the county has declared four “code blue” alerts, which are initiated when temperatures dip below 38 degrees or during extreme rain.

The county is under another “code blue” warning this week, prompting the county and homeless service providers to deploy mobile warming stations in areas with large homeless populations and opens up additional shelters.

“Being outside in this weather right now can be very scary for people who are vulnerable,” Holmes said. “It’s urgent that we get people inside as quickly as possible or people could die outside.”

County officials and Holmes said ultimately, permanent housing is the best solution. Replicating projects like The Palms can help, they said.

“We have all this money to put people into housing, but we just don’t have the units,” Holmes said.

Holmes referenced a problem many low-income people in Sonoma County are facing. After waiting on the Section 8 housing list for years before qualifying for a voucher, tenants have a difficult time finding a landlord to accept them, and increasingly, voucher holders are being skipped over for people who can afford to pay above the market rate in rent, Holmes said.

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

Backed by the Board of Supervisors, the transformation of The Palms Motel into housing for homeless people has been fast-tracked since it began in October.

The Santa Rosa Avenue motel’s owner, Akash Kalia, purchased property in 2012 from his parents, who were struggling financially. He said money from the settlement of a personal injury lawsuit — he’d been hit in the eye with a paintball when he was 12 — made it possible.

Kalia was running the motel as a regular business for three years when he was approached with an idea: Turning the motel into permanent housing, and accepting federal low-income housing vouchers in exchange.

“We’ve seen this in San Francisco and a few other places, but never done this in Sonoma County before,” said Kim Valadez, who runs the Santa Rosa veterans housing voucher program for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We just don’t have those single-room-occupancy type buildings here, yet we had all these veterans with vouchers in their hands, so we knew we had to do something.”

The site, on the southern stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue near the intersection of Todd Road, will house 60 veterans and 44 chronically homeless people. The project has been slightly delayed due to staffing needs, but organizers said they expect it to open up to tenants by the end of January.

When it opens, nurses, peer support counselors and social workers will provide on-site services, including some medical and mental health care, counseling and more.

Catholic Charities and the VA have partnered to run the program.

Hill also recently got a job driving a mobile shower trailer and restroom for homeless people, a service approved and funded by the Santa Rosa City Council in November.

“Now I have a job, I’ll be able to sleep in my own bed and I’ll be able to cook a hot meal,” Hill said. “Life is going to get easier for me and for some other people. That’s going to help tremendously — nobody wants to be out here.”

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

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