Veterans find new affordable housing in old Santa Rosa firehouse

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Traci Swank-Chrisco can’t wait to move in. Standing between the old Benton Street firehouse and a new apartment complex, she reminisced about being homeless twice in her life, including a stretch where she was raising her son. The Santa Rosa native and former Army private has a place with roommates now, but the second-floor apartment at the new Benton Veterans Village will be just for her when she moves in next week.

“It’s the first place that I’ve had since I got out of the Army that I don’t have to share with a lover, a child, or a roommate,” she said. “It’s monumental.”

The new homes for Swank- Chrisco and six other formerly homeless veterans are part of the $3.6 million Benton Veterans Village development, which came to be through a joint effort led by the nonprofit developer Community Housing Sonoma County. The new apartments were built adjacent to the repurposed Santa Rosa firehouse, which in recent years has served as a food pantry.

An open house was held Friday to celebrate the progress and the promise of the property.

“I think it’s a wonderful continuance of being able to help our homeless veterans,” said Ross Liscum, a longtime Santa Rosa real estate agent, CHSC board member and veteran himself.

The station’s garage that once housed firetrucks will become a rec room complete with couches, a pool table and art courtesy of the local firefighters union. Santa Rosa firefighters helped assemble and transport donated furniture. Each of the new apartments was adopted by a Santa Rosa fire station.

“We appreciate the sacrifice they made for the country, and we’re here to support them,” said firefighter Chris Roberts, a veteran and a member of the honor guard at Friday’s open house.

Dan Murray, a former soldier who served in Vietnam, handed out T-shirts to attendees on Friday. Murray will be the resident manager for Benton Veterans Village.

After his business burned to the ground, he was homeless for years before he was able to find shelter. His Benton Street home is important to him, and he’ll be happy to show it off to his relatives when they visit.

“They came to my tent and my bush when I was out there, but this place is a little better,” Murray said with a grin.

Another new tenant is Allen Campbell, a veteran who served as a diesel mechanic at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. Residual anxiety from a mechanical accident during his service knocked Campbell’s life off track, but with a psychiatrist’s help, he has put in the work to find a place to call home.

“It means the world,” Campbell said.

As with all his new neighbors, Campbell is clean and sober. The veterans moving in here are among roughly 400 in the county who have housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans kick in 30 percent of their income and also consent to monthly visits by VA staffers, and the vouchers cover their remaining housing tab.

Even with the new housing at Benton Veterans Village — and two CHSC projects that will create another 28 beds — a large number of local veterans remain homeless. The tally topped 200 in the county’s annual census, taken in February and published in July.

About 40 veterans have housing vouchers but cannot find a place to live due to Sonoma County’s shortage of affordable housing, officials said.

“We need about a thousand of these,” Mayor Chris Coursey said at Friday’s open house. “Maybe not a thousand, but we need a lot of these.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who spearheaded a county project where CHSC built tiny houses for veterans, touted the strides local government has made to build places to live but acknowledged that there was more work to be done. While she was speaking, some of the firefighters in attendance dashed off with sirens blaring after a call came in.

Aboudara, president of the Santa Rosa Fire Fighters Local 1401, said most of the firefighters who worked at the old Benton Street station were likely veterans themselves — a reflection of the importance for firefighters and everyone else to have stable shelter.

“Healing happens at home,” Aboudara said.

Monday is the earliest veterans can move in to their new lodging. Eyeing her apartment’s balcony Thursday afternoon, Swank-Chrisco remarked that she had at last found her own place.

“They’re going to pull me out of here in a body bag,” she said. “This is my home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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