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September 24, 2022

Work Begins at L&M Village for the Unsheltered

Repairing walls, fire security first steps

On Sept. 1, the workers’ trucks finally started rolling into the parking lot at the former L&M Motel at 70 Healdsburg Ave., as crews started replacing walls, installing appliances and converting what were once the most affordable motel rooms in town into something else—a place of rescue, a reprieve from the streets and the elements for people without a home: L&M Village.

Reach for Home, the local nonprofit whose stated mission is to end homelessness in the north county, will operate the 22-room lodging, converted by Burbank Housing from the mid-20th century roadside motel just off the Central Healdsburg exit. But don’t expect a drop-in facility for every hitchhiker who comes through town, or permanent housing even for those most in need. 

Instead, the L&M Village—set to be fully open by Nov. 21 of this year, just in time for Thanksgiving—will be a place for the chronically homeless.

“When we use the term chronic homelessness, there is a definition by HUD, but I will just let you know that most people that experience homelessness for a long period of time, or multiple periods of time, or have a disability or other condition would fall into that category,” said Stephen Sotomayor, the city’s housing director, at an Aug. 10 community meeting about the L&M.

The number of homeless in the Healdsburg area is not known for certain—a point-in-time census of homeless was held in Sonoma County in February of this year, but final results have not yet been released with their breakdown of where the county’s unsheltered (and temporarily sheltered) are found. 

The latest homeless census results available are from 2020; they showed 69 unsheltered in Healdsburg, 209 in north county. At last month’s meeting, Sotomayor estimated there were about 50 people without a home in the immediate Healdsburg area, perhaps 70 in the north county, including Windsor, Geyserville and Cloverdale. 

The problem is becoming more visible in Healdsburg, not least with the recent appearance of at least one homeless person camping out in the Plaza. Said City Manager Jeff Kay, “Rarely does a day go by when I don’t hear something from a member of the community reflecting some sort of concern around this problem … we hear from people who most fundamentally are concerned about the welfare of the unsheltered.”

The logistical hurdle the city faces, that most cities face, is a 2018 federal court ruling that said a jurisdiction can’t penalize someone for “illegal camping” without first being able to offer that individual a place to stay. “It’s a pervasive challenge, and as I said many times, it’s one of the most vexing challenges that we face right now in local government,” said Kay. 

It is the virtual absence of overnight support services for the homeless in the Healdsburg area that makes L&M Village so necessary, said Margaret Sluyk, CEO of Reach for Home. Their ambitious goal of ending homelessness in the region is thwarted by a simple lack of options. 

“For quite some time, the city of Healdsburg and northern Sonoma County have not had a shelter within our jurisdictional boundaries.” That means getting people off the street and into a shelter has been virtually impossible, she said. 

Bruce Mantzer of Farm to Fight Hunger shows Angie Escudero of Reach for Home the growing vegetable harvest at L&M Village. The Healdsburg homeless shelter will include gardening and cooking programs to engage its community of residents. (Christian Kallen)

That was probably the single strongest argument for the city’s March 2022 purchase of the L&M Motel, to convert it into a homeless shelter for those who stand to benefit most from its service—“helping people get moving on their path toward permanent housing,” as Reach for Home’s director of development, Angie Escudero, said.

With Escudero, we toured the future L&M Village—a typical mid-20th century motor home that remained operational until December, 2021. There were two rows of overnight rooms and storage areas, a now-empty swimming pool in the back, multiple fruit trees and even a vegetable garden already producing along Healdsburg Avenue, a house for the former owner/operators—and a wishing well dead center of the parking lot. 

“We expect some people might want to visit the wishing well when they first get here, and we’ll have tokens so they can make a wish for their escape from homelessness if they choose,” said Escudero.

The first order of business is to install fire sprinklers in every room, take out some walls and add others to create a total of 22 rooms for the residents. Many will have small kitchenettes, and all will have bathrooms. The pool (and wishing well) will be filled, gardens will be planted and a community kitchen will be installed. 

But L&M Village is not just an indoor camp site, or a temporary bed for anyone who needs one. Reach for Home already has several case workers in the community who have come to know the homeless population, often on a first-name basis, and are able to recognize their problems and issues, potentially connecting them with services that can help them overcome them. 

Admission to L&M Village will not be a given—the condition of chronic homelessness comes with many challenges and difficulties, not the least of which is an extended period living in a place not fit for human habitation. Already, the case workers have a pretty good idea of whom they think would most benefit from the immediate step of getting shelter and services. 

“For quite some time, the city of Healdsburg and northern Sonoma County have not had a shelter within our jurisdictional boundaries.” That means getting people off the street and into a shelter has been virtually impossible.

There will be four case workers stationed at the village to help with intake, therapeutic activities, drug and alcohol treatment as needed, employment services and job assistance, and management of the property. 

But the residents themselves, usually about 20 (two or three beds will be reserved for emergency use by local law enforcement), will be self-governing through a “resident council” to define some of their own rules around behaviors such as noise. “This is their village while they’re here, so we want them to be able to set the rules,” said Sluyk. 

“We are behavior based, so we expect that their behavior while at the L&M Village is going to be congruent with behavior that is safe and harmonious for all of the village members, as well as the community surrounding the village,” Sluyk said. Some of those behaviors are obvious—no alcohol or drug use or possession is allowed, though if someone is struggling with their addictions, they won’t be tossed out. 

Underscoring the philosophy of a place like the L&M Village is that the population served is, for want of a better word, damaged. “Whenever someone’s unsheltered, they have trauma—just being unsheltered causes trauma,” said Escudero. “What we’re doing here is trauma-informed case management.” Drugs, mental illness, physical or emotional disability are common characteristics of the chronically unhoused. 

There is no easy cure, but Reach for Home offers a path, a journey toward recovery—to restore the humanity of the homeless and prepare them for a return to normalcy. “We have pathways towards stable, permanent housing,” said Healdsburg’s housing director Sotomayor. “We just didn’t have a place that people could decompress, receive services, and get readied for follow-on housing.”

The L&M Village will not be a permanent residence for anyone; it is intended for shorter-term stays. People are accepted for 30-day terms, mutually renewable for up to 180 days.

“Really, our intent is to make every person and every individual human at the L&M Village feel like they can be their best self, and that they’re human and respected, and they’re integrated into a bigger community,” said Sotomayor. “So that’s really the goal of the program, alongside the main goal of getting them into stable housing.” 

Ambitious goals, but every journey begins with a single step, and Reach for Home, the City of Healdsburg, Burbank Housing, Farm to Table, Farm to Fight Hunger, Hansel Auto Group, Summit State Bank and a collaboration of other supportive agencies offer the starting point of that journey. After all, it takes a village. 


Harvest of Hope

Reach for Home’s largest annual fundraiser, Harvest of Hope, will be held on Sunday, Oct. 2 from 4 to 7pm at Alexander Valley Hall. The theme, “It Takes a Village,” celebrates the opening of the L&M Village. 

With a goal to raise $215,000 to support the programs, the evening will feature wine and heavy appetizers. Also featured will be an inspiring short film by award-winning independent filmmaker Zach Putnam, a Healdsburg Jazz trio featuring artistic director Marcus Shelby, and live and silent auctions. Tickets and sponsorships are available.Website: Reach for Home – Reach for Home’s Harvest of Hope 2022 – It Takes a Village (networkforgood.com).

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