The first four permanent residents of the Sebastopol Inn project moved into their new homes on Dec. 29. Sebastopol’s newest residents are beneficiaries of the State of California’s Project Homekey initiative, which offered funding to counties like Sonoma to provide permanent supportive housing to unhoused persons at-risk for severe coronavirus-related illnesses.
In November, the County of Sonoma purchased the Sebastopol Inn located off Highway 12 at the western entrance to town in order to meet a Dec. 30 deadline for the project’s funding. The county received over $14 million in funding from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to purchase the Sebastopol Inn as well as Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa.
Project Homekey, a $600-million program, is the state’s expansion of the Project Roomkey program, which has provided short-term housing for unhoused Californians during the pandemic. Sonoma County currently serves 260 individuals at three non-congregate sites throughout the county.
According to Communications and Engagement Coordinator at Sonoma County Administrator's Office Jennifer Laroque, the Sebastopol Inn will likely serve around 45 residents in its 17 one-bedrooms, 12 two-bedrooms and two suites. The Homekey funding applied only to the purchase of the property, and the county will pay monthly operating costs of $137,500, or approximately $3,055 per person.
Laroque said residents are happy to move in and have a home.
The residents, who have been pre-screened and selected based on both their vulnerability assessments and readiness for permanent supportive housing, are members of a population of unhoused persons in Sonoma County housed at hotels or in trailers at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds (called non-congregate sites), in an effort to protect them from coronavirus infection.
Participants in either program have been selected based on their vulnerability from pre-existing conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer and heart disease. Those moving into the Sebastopol Inn, which will include on-site security and ban drugs and alcohol from the premises, will receive nursing-home level care through the Disaster Emergency Management Association (DEMA). Residents will have access to medical care, behavioral health services, and food and transportation assistance.
According to Leo Chyi, director of the Fifth District of Sonoma County including the Sebastopol Area, the project is a boon to the county’s ability to protect its most vulnerable unhoused residents, for whom practicing social distancing and adhering to other COVID-19 safety protocols may be difficult.
“From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, people at the county have been worried about vulnerable populations and how we could protect them from being infected,” Chyi said.
Chyi, who works under Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, said an application to receive state funding to buy the Sebastopol Inn was initially rejected over the summer, however, county workers continued to prepare for the possibility of receiving the funding. Approval came in November after a project in another county fell through, freeing up funds and since then the process has moved very quickly to meet the Dec. 30 deadline.
Chyi said the former proprietors of the Sebastopol Inn approached the county about selling their property to be used as part of their funds. The state has been seeking out hotels and motels as a more affordable way of providing immediate supportive housing, which would otherwise be too expensive and time consuming to build.
Chyi said he has been impressed with the Sebastopol community’s support for this project, however, he has acknowledged more wary community members, particularly owners of businesses near the Inn. For some business owners in Gravenstein Station and the Barlow, this project compounds worries about Sebastopol’s already growing homeless population.
“I think that we’re definitely interested in finding good solutions, and we’ll continue to work with the city and those business owners,” he said. “We’re continuing to try and sort through what the potential impact would be and how to try and address those problems.”
As part of the county’s effort to work with the City of Sebastopol throughout this project, the city will receive over $350,000 to make up for lost hotel tax revenue and potentially fund a homeless outreach coordinator.
Supervisor Hopkins has been involved in collaborating with the city since the county purchased the hotel, and Chyi said their office will be involved in helping assure things run smoothly at the site and that community concerns are addressed. Chyi said community concerns about visibility and problematic behavior are likely not to manifest to a high degree with this population.
“There are still people who envision a homeless shelter—we should really be thinking of it as permanent supportive housing,” Chyi said. Most of the residents are elderly and have been selected from non-congregate sites for permanent housing because they have proven they will be able to live in accordance with the rules of the program.
The project will help the city reach its goals in providing low-income housing, tied to key state funding mechanisms.