Palms Not Bombs

The early evening sun is sinking and rays of light cut through a line of swaying palm trees as residents amble down the outdoor hallways at the Palms Inn, a converted motel in unincorporated Santa Rosa.

The Palms Inn has become a major success story for formerly homeless veterans—and others—in short order. You can hear the nearby rush-hour traffic zoom by on Highway 101 as visitors tour the residential center, which houses 60 veterans and another 44 residents who came here via Catholic Charities.

All around there are signs of stability and personal touches offered by the tenants. Residents are growing tomatoes near an outdoor gazebo—the smoking zone—and someone has hung a couple of small disco balls from a balcony that fronts onto the parking lot. Under a stairway, a shopping cart rests with a couple of bicycle frames in it, and a man with long hair in a wheelchair zooms over to the gazebo for a smoke.

The story of how the Palms project came together is rare indeed, as numerous speakers tell an overflow crowd that’s gathered here on a Thursday evening for the Veterans Housing Crisis Summit, an event pulled together by volunteers with Organizing for Action and spearheaded by OFA organizer Linda Hemenway, a former school teacher and enthusiastic booster for the Palms project.

Hemenway was joined by Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and other speakers, and the theme of the gathering was quite simple: the Palms is a success; how can we replicate this model elsewhere, in a county and city that has an outsized homeless population relative to the rest of the country—about three times the national rate?

Rex Bishop was, until very recently, one of those homeless people. Bishop is 64 years old and from a well-to-do family in Oregon with a long tradition of serving in the military. He did his part in 1970 and joined the Navy, and served in Vietnam. He flew 13 bombing missions over North Vietnam in an A-7 Corsair II, and he talks about how he took “many chopper rides to pick up brutally wounded soldiers” during his deployment. Bishop’s job was to collect information from mortally wounded men and their fellow soldiers on where to send the soldiers’ personal effects, who to contact, upon their death. Now he’s an advocate for veterans trying to get off the streets.

Bishop had a long career working for Robert Half International, the staffing agency, and lived with his partner, Rudy Pieraccini, until his death in 2015, at which point Bishop became homeless, lacking the resources to hold down their shared home in Forestville. “It felt like my life was blown to smithereens,” he says, recalling those first few months after his partner’s death, and his subsequent exodus to his car—where he lived for months before finding his way to the Palms.

“I was in a daze for months afterward,” Bishop says. Living in his car, he came down with pneumonia and his weight dropped to 121 pounds. He wasn’t taking his meds. “I was not doing any of the things you ordinarily do when you have a home.”

It was daunting, he says, to come to the Palms, but he’s happy he did. There’s currently one unoccupied room here and visitors are granted access, a quickie tour. It’s your basic small hotel room, and residents are allowed to use a microwave and a crockpot in their rooms; the staff here even provide a cooking-education program to make the best use of those devices.

The Palms takes its cue from the Housing First model, which is self-explanatory (all good things lead from a roof over your head) and begins with the so-called harm-reduction model on how to properly oversee facilities such as the Palms. From concept to opening day, the project took a total of three months to complete earlier this year, an extraordinary effort in red-tape cutting but with an unfortunate undercurrent of a crisis situation in Sonoma County when it comes to housing.

In her presentation, an enthusiastic Zane, recounting the story of how her dad was a Marine pilot in the Solomon Islands during WWII, made the very basic point that “people who fight for freedom shouldn’t have to fight for housing.”

Jennielynn Holmes is a native Santa Rosan and shelter-and-housing specialist at Catholic Charities, which helped to place 44 of their clients here—many of whom, as Bishop observes, have pretty intense case-management needs, which are well met by a sturdy staff of social workers, in-house support workers and other outreach efforts. Holmes took a moment to marvel at the overflow crowd as volunteers hurriedly brought more chairs into a conference room to accommodate the interest, remarking that, despite the successful placement of 60 veterans here, “do not let it be said that it is not a crisis here,” referring to Sonoma County in general. The project, she says, came together so quickly because at every step, up to the federal level, “nobody stood in the way.”

Bishop also addressed the crowd and emphasized the word “courage” in his moving presentation. After, organizers broke out into groups that delved into the different issues around homelessness among veterans, while enjoying some tasty chow cooked up by residents.

There has been a big national push, starting with President Obama, to reduce homelessness among veterans. Cities around the country have taken up the call, and Obama recently spoke of how the attention had managed to cut the national homeless count in half, to below 40,000. And yet there’s still the awful reality of 22 veteran suicides a day on average, and many thousands still out on the streets.

Bishop says vets can be a tough nut to crack, especially among younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who might not be aware of the resources that are available to them—and who might even prefer to rough-it in the great outdoors over the long term, a not-uncommon phenomenon. Bishop hopes to reach some of those men to let them know that they’ve got options that they may not even know they have, words of wisdom that anyone who’s been in an AA meeting has likely heard before.

The units at the Palms are offered as a long-term solution, though residents can also use it on a short-term basis as they work to find more traditional housing—they’re encouraged but not required to do so. This is a drug-free zone, but there aren’t any heavy-handed restrictions on residents; there are no room checks or staff barging into rooms if they suspect unsavory behavior. They are tenants, and they have rights—and they can be evicted should any tenant be determined to be a menace to other residents.

“I’m sticking this out for a while,” says Bishop. The sharp and passionate veteran is fully settled and acts as the resources coordinator at the Palms; he’s a full-time volunteer, working 35 to 40 hours a week, and the first person potential tenants or visitors meet when they come through the doors.

“My life has taken an extraordinary turn of events,” Bishop says, then heads off to one of the breakout-workshop groups, where a speaker from Vet Connect is telling a small group that there are still about 275 homeless veterans out there in Sonoma County. Somewhere.