Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services (DHS) director set forth a timeline and details on the Sebastopol Inn’s conversion to a permanent supportive housing site for COVID-vulnerable homeless residents at the Dec. 15 Sebastopol City Council meeting.
The city’s new neighbors will move into the purchased by the county with state Project Homekey funds by Dec. 31, according to Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services (DHS) and interim executive director for the Community Development Commission (CDC).
Assistant DHS Director Tina Rivera said escrow was scheduled to close Wednesday, Dec. 16. The inn’s 31 units near downtown Sebastopol count toward Sonoma County’s own goal of establishing 1,000 permanent supportive housing units in the county, which Robinson said has the fourth highest number of unsheltered people in a large suburban area in the nation.
Sebastopol Inn may house more than 31 people, since some may be couples and families. Residency selection will prioritize homeless community members currently living at the county’s non-congregate sites (NCS), aged 65 and older and/or who have chronic or serious health issues, like cancer, diabetes, COPD and mental health and substance abuse issues, Robinson said.
“These individuals were identified as potential candidates based on a vulnerability assessment taken at the time they entered the non-congregate site,” Robinson said, which also prioritizes dwellers of Sebastopol and west county. “And people that are selected are ready for housing and eager to improve their conditions.”
The county’s Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self Sufficiency (ACCESS) Sonoma Initiative will arrange “individualized, integrated” services supporting the incoming townspeople, like primary healthcare and behavioral health services, food and economic assistance, job training and transportation to appointments, Robinson said.
In addition to medical services, residents will receive breakfast, lunch and dinner on-site and White Star Security will monitor the property, Robinson said.
Disaster Emergency Medical Assistance (DEMA) will run a tight ship but one that emphasizes the dignity and holistic needs of its residents at the Sebastopol Inn, according to Michelle Patino, longtime registered nurse and owner of DEMA.
DEMA will serve as the interim medical provider for the Sebastopol Inn, on top of servicing NCS sites in the county, Robinson said. Patino said DEMA operates a nursing care model with staff on-site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, among them registered nurses, paramedics, emergency department technicians and other professionals in community health.
The agency also sends a medical director and a physician provider to each site at least two to three days a week, she said, offering telemedicine, on-call services at any time and a case manager RN, though ACCESS provides case management for the sites.
“One of the other aspects that we provide at DEMA that we really, really believe in is a whole-person care. I believe every individual in our community, whether they’re homeless or not homeless deserves to be treated as a whole person, and that includes mental health, emotional health and physiological medical health,” she said.
The new neighbors get to participate in activities led by a program director like art, gardening, a movie night, community volunteer work and an outdoor hair salon, according to the presentation given to the Sebastopol City Council.
While some meeting attendees expressed concerns about safety and the possibility tourists may find the new residents off-putting, Robinson said sex offenders were not eligible for the program and residents must agree to certain rules to live at the inn. No alcohol, drugs or weapons are permitted on-site and residents are searched when they enter the property, according to Patino. She said her staff was trained in de-escalation and rarely needed to call for backup from police.
Patino said DEMA is unique in that her team doesn’t view unsheltered individuals like what’s shown on TV.
“We look at this community as community members. Many people in this community want the opportunity to better themselves. They want to get back on track. They’ve fallen into hard times that have placed them in these situations,” she said. “And we want to allow them the opportunity to become productive members back into our community again.”
Visitors aren’t allowed currently because of COVID-19 restrictions, but generally, Sebastopol Inn residents may receive visitors in compliance with certain regulations, Robinson said. According to Patino, anyone referred to an NCS site receives COVID-19 testing at the Alternate Care Site in Healdsburg. DEMA’s staff screens residents frequently and none of its sites have experienced an outbreak, she said.
What happens post-pandemic?
When COVID-19 is no longer an emergency, the Sebastopol Inn will transition from interim housing to more formalized permanent supportive housing. The county intends to launch a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to choose service providers to assume property management, security, food services and medical care, according to Robinson.
She said she had a preliminary conversation with Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services (WCCS). “And I’m sure that Tim will be highly competitive in the RFP process given his long-standing work and accomplishments in west county and supporting populations that we’re trying to serve in this permanent supportive housing development.”
Additionally, the director of health services said the county seeks local food service vendors to partner with to provide meals for the residents.
Business owners find fault in Sebastopol Inn plans, others voice support
Several business owners and community members said they were dissatisfied or uncertain about how the Sebastopol Inn project could impact the Gravenstein Station marketplace next door and the Barlow across the street.
“I’m concerned that putting a homeless shelter in a downtown business area of a town that thrives on tourism is almost certain to have many negative effects. And city council members and the board of supervisors, how many business failures is acceptable?” Brian Flath asked.
Meanwhile, Kate Haug called for Gravenstein Station businesses to be reimbursed, which Flath also suggested.
Coffee Catz owner Debby Meagher said, “I’ve been there for 28 years and I applaud having homeless, but through having COVID and then this has really been detrimental to my business, together.”
She said the burden of running the cafe by herself was too much, so she’s trying to sell her shop.
“People don’t necessarily want to buy Coffee Catz because of this impending shelter behind Coffee Catz,” her daughter Keli Meagher said, adding they were concerned about the security of the Gravenstein Station’s customers.
Many expressed support for the housing effort, like Gale Johnstone Brownell.
“I’m really excited about what it will mean for people. I think generally speaking, when you provide housing and services to people who have been unhoused, they appreciate it greatly and their behaviors that have been previously unsavory sometimes generally improve,” she said.
Another attendee said she lost housing in Sebastopol following devastating life events and once stayed at the Sebastopol Inn after she became sick, living in her car.
“I’m a different face of homeless, and I accepted the county’s help and assistance as a COVID-vulnerable person, with the assistance at Sonoma State and now at Alliance Redwoods. Through this whole-person care and trust, mutually, I’ve been able to move forward to get SSI to start to try to deal with my trauma,” she said.
She mentioned receiving a Section 8 housing voucher. “In the meantime, I’m better suited to be in Sebastopol than underneath the redwoods in the rainy season. I’m advocating to move to the Sebastopol Inn much sooner than later.”
Although some attendees were concerned about the property maintaining a respectable aesthetic, Patino said the Sebastopol Inn was not a homeless shelter.
“These are their homes. People who have homes and places to reside, they take pride in that. They clean. At the Astro (Hotel), we have a cleaning day, and then they come and they all show us how well they’ve done on their rooms. They're proud of it,” she said. “And it will continue, and it will start at your site as well.”
5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins quoted Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” She said the project was that first, right move and that inaction was not an option, noting homelessness has increased in Sebastopol in recent years.
Hopkins said the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to buy and acquire the Sebastopol Inn Tuesday morning, as well as funds for Sebastopol “to the
tune of $370,000 for increased outreach and service provision,” allowing the city to decide much of how those dollars are spent on homelessness issues.
She said the contribution was part of the county’s effort to address the loss of transient occupancy tax revenue from the Sebastopol Inn with potential one-time money.
The council agreed that Mayor Una Glass and Councilmember Patrick Slayter will track project updates from the county as the city council’s housing subcommittee.
While nearly half of the homeless population in the U.S. lives in California, Robinson said, Sonoma County officials, service providers and formerly unsheltered neighbors get into position this December for permanent supportive housing in Sebastopol.