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.”