Story Corps

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Guided by workers in orange vests on a recent Friday, a pair of cranes slowly lowered lumber into place. Meanwhile, gates are being fitted to dog kennels. Across the courtyard, laborers are painting trim, testing locks. There's a welter of activity at what at first blush could pass for a university building or headquarters of a new tech startup flush with venture capital.
But, this is neither. What is taking shape here is wildly different; a site integrating a medical clinic, job training and counseling, childcare, mental health treatment with housing, all for those living on Sonoma County's streets.
When it officially opens Thursday, officials with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa said their new 'Caritas Center and Village' will profoundly change the underfunded and jerry-rigged approach to homelessness. Jennielynn Holmes is Catholic Charities' chief program officer.
"The amount of money being spent on this building is nothing compared with not doing anything about homelessness. The data all shows that keeping people in homelessness, keeping people unsheltered, is far more costly than building a building that actually houses them with a sense of dignity and respect. And, we do believe in particular with this building and the other funds that will help people get housed, that we could potentially get to functional zero family homelessness in the next few years. So, we're not talking about mitigating homelessness with this building, we're talking about ending it. And we're hoping that other communities can replicate pieces of what we've done here."

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What they've done, she said, is do a lot of thinking. With a decade and a half at the organization, Holmes knows a lot about barriers. Single mothers who can't take jobs because there's no child care. Men who have a job interview, but nowhere to safely store their things while at it. Shelter in one place and meals across town.
"We've been in triage/crisis mode in homelessness, particularly in California, but more so in the Bay Area, managing in place, going from encampment to encampment, and not really like putting the systems in place and putting the programs in place that could actually keep people engaged and get them out of homelessness and into housing," she said.
In addition to 128 apartments, there will be all the things housed people take for granted, and more. Cooking, laundry facilities and showers available to those living in the rough. Job training and placement, safe storage, child care, counseling, privacy, along with workers trying to match people with permanent housing.
With its clean lines, high ceilings and bright, inviting colors, the new center is a mighty contrast to a cramped, century-old hospital down the block that's been used to house survivors of domestic violence.
"Right now we have a really hard time keeping it safe because of the building's flawed designs. We have low windows, people can break into the windows, we don't have line of site all around," Holmes said. 

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Part of that just goes with the territory of using hand-me down buildings. And while there's been no successful the former hospital, two families are assigned to share what was once an exam room. Cramped doesn't do it justice. The Caritas Center and Village will be vastly different.
"Instead of nine restrooms for 138 people, there's one restroom for two families. So now it's only two families sharing, versus 10 families sharing one restroom."
The purpose-built new structure is all about practicality and responsiveness. Many homeless people shun big open shelters due to a lack of privacy, quiet and security. At Caritas, those staying overnight will get a semi private roomette. It's part of the dignity Holmes says Catholic Charities wants to restore to the downtrodden.
Adding a real medical clinic and providing treatment before ailments and infections need emergency care is yet another part. It's vastly cheaper for society as a whole to deliver preventative and timely care, than to pick up a hefty ambulance and emergency room tab later.
Set for a soft opening September ninth, the new Caritas drop-in center is scheduled to officially open September 12th.
With workers putting finishing touches on the building, Holmes was still struck by some disbelief.
"When we started in 2015, if you had asked me then if building something like Caritas Village was possible, I probably would have said 'no.' There's so many moments where we thought, it's too complex, there's too many hurdles, too expensive, too many needs that we're trying to meet all in one facility and then, every time, honestly miracles happened."
Now, all they'll need to do, is deliver.
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