There are better options to address the needs of homeless people, whether from economic hardship, mental illness and/or substance abuse
If Sonoma County remove Sebastopol’s only downtown hotel – currently full of local fire evacuees – we lose tax revenue and tourist visits, which will not help local businesses recover from the economic depression.
Homelessness is sadly a rapidly growing problem as a result of the economic depression, and large scale planning is urgently needed now to help the rapidly increasing numbers in need.
Sonoma County is attempting to rush through the purchase of the Sebastopol Inn to house homeless people with a lack of transparency and citizen involvement
Sonoma County have applied for a total of $26 million in 2020 & 2021 from California’s ‘Project Homekey‘, and plan to buy and permanently convert motels into homeless accommodation, if their submission for funding is chosen later this year.
Near term they feel there is an urgent need to house vulnerable over 65 homeless and others with preexisting conditions during the Covid 19 crisis, and multiple hotels during the ‘shelter in place’ have been temporarily rented to enable accommodation by Sonoma County.
The owner of the local boutique hotel Sebastopol Inn was not contactable by Sonoma County earlier this year when they wanted to rent rooms for these at risk people during the pandemic crisis, but did contact Sonoma County to ask if they would like to buy the hotel in the same time frame.
Sonoma County have already decided this state funded small band aid solution in the heart of Sebastopol’s retail district is a good permanent solution for housing and rehabilitating the homeless. They have applied for funding by Project HomeKey in the hope of convincing them buying the hotel as permanent hotel room homeless housing is viable. Once it is purchased by Sonoma County there is short term funding up to the end of next year (2021) but after this it is very unclear who will be responsible for costs, upkeep and management in what is likely to be a deep recession. There appears to be no long-term planning or ownership responsibility clarity.
Creates more problems than it solves
and is not a viable solution
There are multiple reasons why this is not a viable solution to Sonoma County’s rapidly increasing homeless problem, while also creating further significant challenges. The local community are already dealing with an increasing itinerant population of homeless vehicle dwellers in the downtown area clustered above the Sebastopol Inn in Morris Street and parked in various side streets around Sebastopol, and the various homeless individuals who sleep rough locally.
There are plenty of local alternative sites, campuses and options to help the homeless, substance abuse and mental health challenged people at scale as discussed elsewhere on this website.
Reasons why the main road gateway to Sebastopol is not an appropriate location for a permanent homeless rehabilitation nucleus.
- Sebastopol has limited medical facilities, and the Hewlett Packard grant funded Santa Rosa ACCESS care promised by Sonoma County to help inhabitants has no long term plan or budgeting for the permanent boutique hotel room conversion to living spaces inhabitants health will need.
- The Sebastopol Inn is built in the local laguna flood plain (based on city records) and therefore susceptible to flooding in winter, and is valuable evacuation accommodation during fire season for locals.
- The Sebastopol Inn has 31 overnight stay rooms, 2 of which are suites that have a minibar, fridge, small sink and prep area for functions. All other rooms have a small fridge, and 7 also have a microwave. These are not ‘homes’.
- It is far from clear what planning permission will be needed to convert a hotel on a flood plain into permanent housing, filling in the swimming pool and fencing off the tourist recreational area will be needed.
- The community impact on Gravenstein Station businesses, who share a car park with Sebastopol Inn and coffee shop etc for visitors, is already struggling with indigents fighting at night in the car park, drug dealing etc.
- Community impact will be significant: ground has been broken on low cost housing behind the Sebastopol Inn, whose value will decrease significantly if adjacent to a permanent homeless location. The new hotel that was to be built in the Barlow is now on permanent hold due to the economic depression and existing homeless issues.
- The community impact on businesses in the Barlow Center across highway 12, also struggling with the vehicle dwellers camping on Morris Street, floods, fires and pandemics, will not be positive and this adjacent homeless center will further dilute visitor appeal, harming business survival and employment.
- Highway 12 is already a very busy county thoroughfare, and significantly increasing population in that area crossing the road to buy prescription drugs, walk to affordable food stores at the other end of town and waiting for buses to get to medical facilities in Santa Rosa will be a challenge for both the hotel room inhabitants and the traffic jams we often have in the area.
- Long-term it is unclear what the occupants of the 31 rooms and their friends will be doing all day and where they will be doing it. The community impact on a small town with an above average over 65 population and young families with children could remove the central town square and Barlow center, already a spot for homeless itinerants to loiter, off limits.
- Near term, Sonoma County claim the Sebastopol Inn occupants will be infirm and over 65 and need urgent shelter because of Covid 19. When that shelter will be provided (assuming purchase and conversion) is open to debate, but will almost certainly be after the Covid 19 pandemic has receded.
- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has instructed our Sheriff to trim $14.2 million from their budget for 2021, which will further weaken Sheriff’s deputy’s ability to respond to disturbances. The level of police activity to contain crime at Sonoma State University detailed on this link amongst homeless recently sheltering in place include deaths, saved overdose death, stealing, fighting and more. Police activity and medical transportation to Santa Rosa hospitals will inevitably increase in Sebastopol and is a danger to our already overburdened city budget and services.
- We think it is clear from the above points that the Sebastopol Inn, situated in the heart of what is a small, close knit community, is not fit for purpose to cater to the needs of the homeless and will exacerbate an already growing crisis rather than solve it.
There are many more appropriate Sonoma County locations to establish long term HomeKey housing for the homeless
Any serious strategies for planning and budgeting for large scale and complex homelessness problems require detailed projections that reach out to ten and to five years. These plans need to be mindful of changing realities and open to creative solutions.
Currently project Homekey is a 2020 housing initiative and a major shift in focus by California politicians, with significant amounts of money made available for pandemic housing in motels and hotels, either rented or purchased outright.
Previous generations of California and other state efforts have bled out large amounts of money from public budgets with few success stories. This latest California effort takes advantage of federal funding to address what is now a rapidly growing housing, crime and sanitation emergency throughout the state.
While it is unlikely Sonoma County will be granted HomeKey funds to purchase the Sebastopol Inn given the multiple reasons why the location, building and scale of the solution are not fit for purpose, the need to house and care for the homeless is not going to be going away and local services, churches and volunteers continue to do compassionate care work. These sacrifices and hours of toil are laudable but are also a band aid on our growing problem.
Given the scale and diverse – often opposing – needs of the homeless (economic hardship, substance abuse, mental illness, itinerant lifestyle, physical and medical challenges…triaging is a complex issue) piecemeal warehousing of the homeless in tightly confined areas can often exacerbate problems and encourage destructive behaviors.
While funding will be more difficult to obtain for large-scale homelessness solutions, concepts such as small scale versions of the Citizens Again concept are well suited to Sonoma County’s ample land and vacant infrastructure to create tiny home communities with appropriate services and resources. Austin Texas, which has a significant homeless problem, has experimented with this approach with Community first Village.
This approach is ideal for Sonoma County and would be a credit to our serving politicians. Sadly these next two videos are also from Austin Texas 2020 and show the scale of problems if actions are not taken, much like our Joe Rodota Trail fiasco in 2019. (The author of this video cares about the homeless, click this link for one of his interviews with people living in Windsor Park Creek).
We strongly believe the path forward for Sonoma County is the Citizens Again/Community First Village approach. We cannot underemphasize the scale of the problems we face but this is the way forward, not warehousing people in downtown hotels while hurting local business communities!