A pandemic winter approaches as county pursues permanent supportive housing for unsheltered individuals
Plans to convert the Sebastopol Inn into permanent supportive housing have stagnated on the waiting list for Project Homekey funding, as the state approval deadline draws closer.
Governor Gavin Newsom created the Project Homekey program to fund city and county efforts to purchase hotels, motels and vacant apartment buildings to develop into permanent housing for homeless Californians vulnerable to COVID-19, according to his office.
The Sebastopol Inn would provide 31 newly remodeled rooms as permanent supportive housing units in central Sebastopol, accommodating 31 or more individuals if it advances to the next stage, said Barbie Robinson, director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.
However, city and county governments have until Dec. 30 to complete their purchases, according to the governor’s office.
Robinson spearheads the local Project Homekey efforts to house and provide wrap-around services to unsheltered people at higher risk of COVID-19. She also serves as the interim executive director for the county’s Community Development Commission.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the Sebastopol Inn Tuesday, pending funding from the state. Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa also got the greenlight and can proceed with Project Homekey money secured earlier in the year, according to a county press release.
“Providing permanent supportive housing and other wrap-around services through these Homekey Projects are likely to help reduce the financial, administrative as well as other societal costs on our emergency and criminal justice systems,” said Tina Rivera, interim assistant director of the Community Development Commission.
Rivera said housing will prioritize those ages 65 and older and people with underlying medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, liver disease, pulmonary diseases and compromised immune systems that make them susceptible to serious virus complications.
In addition, residents at Hotel Azura and Sebastopol Inn would participate in the county’s Accessing Coordinated Care to Empower Self Sufficiency Initiative, or ACCESS, Robinson said.
ACCESS offers unsheltered individuals with individualized, integrated services based on their needs, like primary health care, behavioral health services and supports, economic and food assistance, transportation, employment training and other resources, she said. Food, medical and security services will also be provided on-site, she said.
Paul Osmundson, special project director of the Community Development Commission said the state had been very tightlipped about the status of waitlisted projects across California.
He guessed the state faces a ratio of about two to one in terms of the applications it’s fielding and the projects it can fund, with $1.1 billion in requests and only $600 million to spend.
Osmundson said there were probably less than a hundred other projects in limbo with Sebastopol Inn. “It’d be safe to say that as soon as the funding’s expired or Dec. 30, whichever comes first, will be when we’ll find out if Sebastopol Inn gets off the waiting list,” he said.
Robinson said, “What we were told is to continue with our processes as if we were getting funded. That’s the only way we can continue to have ourselves in position to be able to take advantage should funding become [available].”
Osmundson said he thought the process was going so quickly that the state government probably does not want to give any applicants an unfair advantage or disadvantage, so the commission remains hopeful and prepared. “And we’re constantly checking with the Chief of Staff to be sure that we’re ready to go,” Osmundson said
Newsom assigned $550 million in federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds to Project Homekey and pitched another $50 million from the state to assist acquisition and initial operating costs, the county press release said.
Rivera said the governor was so impressed by project applications across the state that officials were moving to engage philanthropists to fund some waitlisted projects.
Robinson’s presentation calculated the project to cost $205,645 per unit for a total of $6.375 million for 31 units. Rivera said the application for Sebastopol Inn was submitted for Project Homekey for the $6.375 million in acquisition costs and $744,000 in operation subsidies, marking the total project costs with acquisition, developments and improvements to be $10,302,704.
“These units are more important than ever given COVID, as well as the wildfires over the past few years, which has reduced our available housing available for sheltering our homeless individuals,” Robinson said.
The opportunity for permanent supportive housing in Sebastopol wanes as the county continues to face a lack of affordable housing, which has continued to worsen since the wildfires in 2017 and most recently this August when the Walbridge Fire struck west county.
Similarly, the pandemic pushes those communities closer to the edge financially with increased unemployment and complicates life for people without a roof over their heads or access to soap and water as shelters reduce capacity. Sonoma County has the fourth largest homeless population for large suburban areas in the U.S., the county’s Project Homekey webpage says.
Sonoma County 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said there is always overwhelming community concern and often opposition when homeless services arise.
“But at the end of the day, everyone does want to solve homelessness and they have to solve it somewhere. And that involves folks actually stepping up and instead of saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ saying, ‘Yes, in my backyard, yes in everyone’s backyard, we all need to be a part of this solution,’” Hopkins said.