Homeless people would get housing in ‘ambitious’ proposal to buy 103-bed Modesto motel

Can this Modesto motel be converted into housing for the homeless?

The Housing Authority is in talks with the owner of the American Budget Inn & Suites to buy the 103-room motel in Modesto, California, and plans to turn it into permanent supportive housing for homeless people.
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The Housing Authority is in talks with the owner of the American Budget Inn & Suites to buy the 103-room motel in Modesto, California, and plans to turn it into permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

The Housing Authority is in talks with the owner of the American Budget Inn & Suites to buy the 103-room motel at Kansas Avenue and Highway 99 and plans to turn it into permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

The authority would own and operate what it is calling Kansas House in what is primarily an industrial area but would get financial help buying the motel from the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County.

Executive Director Barbara Kauss of the Housing Authority of the County of Stanislaus emphasized that while officials have been working diligently on this project over the past three months, it remains a proposal. But she expects a sale could take place within two or three weeks.

It is an ambitious project.

Officials hope it can open by the end of this year. The two-story motel, which was built in 1974, will require extensive renovations to turn each of its rooms into what is called a single room occupancy, which will include a small kitchen and a combo washer-and-dryer unit.

Kansas House would provide homes for 150 to 200 people, from single men and women and couples to a single parent with a child or adult siblings or friends who want to live together. Because it’s supportive housing, residents would receive services, such as case management or mental health treatment.

There would be an on-site manager, and residents would be placed in Kansas House based on referrals from the service providers and others who work with them. So it is for homeless people who are doing the work to better their lives. There is no time limit on how long residents can stay, but the expectation is that within a year they would move up to the next rung in housing, such as their own apartment.

Officials stressed that this is not a homeless shelter in which people check in each evening and leave during the day and don’t receive services.

“It’s not like you are opening rooms and no one is checking on them,” said Rhonda Allen of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Stanislaus County chapter. “This will help a large number of people who can’t afford housing. They are trying to do it right by putting the supportive services there.”

Officials say the project is much needed, not only because it may be the first of its kind in Stanislaus County, but it provides the next level of housing above emergency shelters.

‘This is the next step’

“We’re really excited about it,” county CEO Jody Hayes said. “You’ve heard me say it before, ‘We cannot just warehouse people (in shelters). We have to provide a continuum of housing.’ This is the next step.”

Said Kauss: “This is dignity housing. When you give people dignity and let them be self-sufficient, they will be self-sufficient.”

The project also is urgent because of the closure by the end of this year of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter, a collection of tents under the Ninth Street Bridge in the Tuolumne River Regional Park that houses about 400 people. Hayes said officials expect to start moving people out of the outdoor shelter by no later than mid-November.

The county is working on opening a 180-bed shelter at The Salvation Army’s Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets near downtown Modesto, but that is not enough to accommodate everyone now at the outdoor shelter.

Hayes said Kansas House helps in finding beds for all of the homeless at the outdoor shelter by freeing up beds in other shelters. He said the goal is to make sure there is a bed for every homeless person in the city so they don’t have to sleep in parks, in alleys or in front of businesses.

The last annual countywide homeless count, which was conducted in January, tallied 1,923 people, including 1,400 in Modesto. About 43 percent of the total counted were in shelters or other types of housing; the rest were not. These annual counts are snapshots of homelessness and should not be considered definitive.

Hayes said officials will be briefed at the Sept. 10 Stanislaus Homeless Alliance meeting about the numbers of beds for Modesto’s homeless, including information on a couple of smaller projects that will add to that capacity. Officials said that while the city is garnering most of the attention, homelessness projects are being done in the county’s other communities.

The city and county opened the outdoor shelter under the Ninth Street Bridge in February after the city let the homeless camp in nearby Beard Brook Park in September. Officials did this in response to a federal court ruling that said prosecuting homeless people who sleep in parks and other public property because they don’t have a choice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Letting the homeless live first in Beard Brook Park and now under the Ninth Street Bridge has resulted in fewer complaints about homeless people camping in city parks, relieving themselves or being drunk in public or vandalizing property.

Doing nothing will cost more

Some business owners and residents have said they fear that closing the outdoor camp means the homeless will return to sleeping in parks and behind businesses unless officials provided more beds for them than just the 180-bed shelter.

Kauss acknowledged that Kansas House will be expensive but said it still is cheaper in the long term than doing nothing. She declined to give a cost because the authority is still in negotiations with the motel owner.

“It’s not quite there,” said owner Vijay Solanki about the impending sale. “They approached me. They thought it was a great location ... They got a hell of a deal out of me. I’m getting a little older and not as active. The hotel business requires a lot of TLC.”

Kauss said her board has authorized her an amount she can spend but said that is confidential until the sale is completed.

The Modesto City Council will be asked at its Sept. 10 meeting to contribute as much as $2.85 million from funding it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development toward the purchase and renovation of the motel.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said the city is excited about and supports the project, adding that council members have been briefed about it.

Hayes said the Board of Supervisors also has been briefed. He said the county is committed to making up any funding gaps for the purchase and renovation and is looking at how it will fund its contribution. He said that might equal or exceed the city’s, but it’s too early to know.

The Board of Supervisors will need to approve the county’s contribution.

“We have a plan for getting the homeless off the streets and back in our society, and this is just another tool in our shed,” board Chairman Terry Withrow said. “We are going to get a return on our investment. If you look at the costs of people on the streets, the property damage, the arrests and hospital visits, we will get this back 10 times over.”

Kauss said the Housing Authority will commit as much as $1.5 million toward the project. She said residents will receive HUD vouchers to pay their rent and the proceeds will be used to operate Kansas House and pay back the $1.5 million.

Neighbors could oppose project

Kauss acknowledged that the project may face opposition. But she said the Housing Authority is working closely with the city, county, social service providers and police to put together a successful project, one that Hayes said is expected to have a positive impact in the surrounding area.

Kauss said that includes making sure the project has the right design, layout and lighting to minimize potential problems. She said the HUD vouchers that residents will use to pay their rent come with what are called family obligation rules, which require residents to be law-abiding or face being evicted from their rooms.

There also are rules on how long residents can have guests stay with them, and people won’t be allowed to hang out at the property.

“This comes up any time we do affordable housing,” Kauss said about the opposition. “All I can say is we (the housing authority) stand on our management record. Even though we are doing it quickly, we are doing it carefully. We have thought about this from the beginning to the end.”

The project drew mixed responses from two businesses near the American Budget Inn & Suites.

“It’s a bad idea, no,” said a man who identified himself as Ben and the owner at Golden Tire & Auto, which is right next to the motel, as he worked on a customer’s car Thursday afternoon. “We already have problems with the homeless.”

He said homeless people have vandalized his business and he believes the project would bring more homeless people and more problems to his and the other nearby businesses.

Paige Hughes, the general manager at the Smoke Outlet, said the problem is homeless people left to fend for themselves on the streets, especially those who are mentally ill and medicate themselves with street drugs. “I have three crazy homeless people in my parking lot,” she said.

She said providing homeless people with housing and services makes sense.

“I think that it would benefit our community because if we could get people into talking to a therapist and in programs that could actually help their mental health instead of bringing them in and out of homeless shelters, that would be better,” she said.

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Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.
Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.