A young Indian American has converted his parents’ struggling motel in Santa Rosa, Calif., into a 104-room facility to provide housing for chronically homeless people and veterans, the first such center in the nation.

Akash Kalia, 24, will be honored by the city of Santa Rosa Apr. 25, at its 35th annual Merit Awards ceremony. Kalia will receive a community service merit award.

“A hundred people don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep tonight,” Kalia told India-West. “This is a highly vulnerable population. We’re taking people directly from the street, and helping them to transition back into society.”

In 2012, at the midpoint of the national economic downturn, Kalia, then 21, was studying at the University of Oregon. His parents – who owned the property, formerly a franchised Days Inn – found themselves on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, and asked their son for help.

Kalia, who at the age of 12 had been shot in the eye by a paintball gun, used his settlement money to take over the failing hotel, divested it from the Days Inn franchise, and created the independent Palms Inn. As he was rebranding the space, the social entrepreneur chanced upon a project in San Francisco, in which a vacant building was converted into a single-room occupancy hotel to house the homeless. Kalia decided he could replicate the model, in a much-improved way. Palms Inn is the first facility in the nation to house the chronically homeless and military veterans under the same roof.

The Palms Inn re-opened this February and is already 80 percent full, with residents identified by Catholic Charities and the local Veterans Affairs office. Sixty percent of its residents are military veterans, and 40 percent are chronically homeless.

Each resident pays 30 percent of their income for the space, a one bedroom unit with a bed, television, refrigerator, microwave, linens and other accessories. Some residents pay as little as $20 per month, while others pay about $300. Federal and local funding pays the balance of about $1,000 per month per resident, including utilities.

The Palms Inn 10,000 square foot lobby hosts a number of support services for the center’s residents, including a library, recreation center complete with a pool table, and a mini-market featuring pre-made healthy meals. Kalia is working with the Santa Rosa Health Clinic to get a health services kiosk in the lobby for basic health care needs. The center will break ground on a community garden Apr. 3. Local nurseries have donated supplies so that residents can grow their own fresh produce.

Kalia is also planning to create a vocational training facility, making use of the industrial kitchen that already exists onsite. He envisions local chefs coming in to share their culinary skills with residents, providing both job training and food for the motel’s dwellers.

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities, Santa Rosa, told India-West Kalia was providing an important service for the local community. Sonoma County has a homeless population of 3,100 people; 2,000 live on the streets.

Five hundred people are housed each night in emergency shelters; Palms Inn will be able to take in 140 people, she said.

Holmes stated that the Inn is housing people who formerly faced death from the elements while living on the streets. She also stressed the need to support military veterans. “We need to take care of people who fought for our freedom.”

In Sonoma County, a one-bedroom apartment runs about $1,500 per month for rent. Many homeless people receive less than $300 per month in income, said Holmes. Moreover, a 1 percent vacancy rate has made landlords very selective about who they will rent to; many will require a monthly income of three times the rent, along with good credit, she said, noting that landlords are also reluctant to take Section 8 federal housing vouchers.

“Leaving medically-fragile people out on the street is expensive. If we invested adequately in housing, we could be saving millions of dollars of taxpayer money,” said Holmes.

Adriene Mertens, marketing and public outreach coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Santa Rosa, told India-West that Kalia – along with 11 others – will receive the merit award at the City Council Chambers, in a special ceremony. Each year, a committee puts out a city-wide call for nominations for extraordinary volunteer work in four categories.

“Akash is a very deserving individual. There is certainly a need for his services in our community,” said Mertens.

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