Marin’s Homeless Face Severe Lack of Shelter Beds, Supportive Housing

Across the United States, communities large and small face a homelessness crisis. An estimated 580,000 people were homeless during a count on a night in January 2020, according to a report released early this year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

California bears the brunt of the impact, with 161,548 homeless people. More than half of the homeless in America live in four states, with the Golden State accounting for 28% of the nation’s total homeless population.

The most recent count, conducted in early 2019, found an estimated 1,034 homeless people residing in Marin, one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The most visible homeless people in Marin live in three tent encampments located in Sausalito, San Rafael and Novato. About 100 men, women and children inhabit the tents in or near the downtown areas of the three cities.

However, these folks make up a small percentage of Marin’s total homeless population. In fact, only 15% of Marin’s homeless population live in encampments, according to the county’s 2019 count.

The current supply of emergency shelter beds in Marin is woefully inadequate, with just 154 for the more than 1,000 homeless people in the county. The shelters are perpetually at capacity, making it nearly impossible for people to stabilize and break the cycle of homelessness. The waitlist for permanent supportive housing hovers around 500.

To make matters worse, many suspect the number of homeless people increased during the pandemic. The federal government requires the county to perform a point-in-time count every two years of people experiencing homelessness. Due to the pandemic, the 2021 count was canceled, although a tally of people living in vehicles was taken in February.

Marin County saw the number jump from 254 to 486 people from 2019 to 2021, a 91% increase in the number of people living in cars and recreational vehicles. The statistic is a worrying forecast because, upon becoming homeless, people often move into their vehicles before living on the streets.

The homeless in Marin also reside in encampments in less conspicuous areas, such as one near the skate park in Novato. Some sleep in parks, business doorways or public parking garages. Others stay hidden in the hills.

The shortage of emergency shelter space in Marin further restricts municipalities as they attempt to comply with Martin v. Boise, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling affirming homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property when a city cannot offer them an adequate shelter option.

“There is more demand than we have emergency shelter beds,” said Carrie Sager, a homelessness program coordinator with Marin Health and Human Services (HHS).

The bottom line: because the county does not have enough shelter beds, those experiencing homelessness in Marin County are by law permitted to sleep on public property. However, a jurisdiction can place reasonable limitations on camping by the homeless to prevent interference with city business, or for public health and safety. For instance, cities can bar people from staying on railroad tracks or in front of a hospital, said Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union.

“An emergency shelter is a place someone goes to stay until they get outside [permanent] housing,” Sager said. “Any length-of-stay requirements were taken away during the pandemic.”

The county’s 154 shelter beds are located at six different emergency shelters run by nonprofit organizations, according to Sager. During the pandemic, the number of available beds was reduced due to safety guidelines.

The Center for Domestic Peace provides 30 beds at an undisclosed location for people impacted by domestic violence; Homeward Bound Family Center in San Rafael provides 20 beds for homeless families; the Kerner Street shelter in San Rafael offers 43 beds for homeless adults; Homeward Bound Transition to Wellness in Novato accommodates six homeless individuals who have just been released from the hospital; Homeward Bound Voyager Program is a mental health shelter in San Rafael with five beds for homeless people; and Homeward Bound New Beginnings Center in Novato offers 50 beds for homeless adults.

An additional 40 emergency shelter beds at Motel 6 in San Rafael became available during the pandemic through Project Roomkey, a state-funded program providing temporary shelter for homeless persons who are most medically vulnerable for Covid-19. The Project Roomkey funds will likely expire at the end of the year.

The county pays for the majority of the cost for the Homeward Bound shelter beds, Sager said. In addition, the county provides permanent housing and support services for the homeless, using federal and state aid allocated for those purposes.

Marin recently received 115 housing vouchers from the federal government for the chronically homeless, who HUD defines, in part, as homeless individuals with disabilities. Often, a chronically homeless person requires long-term support services, which include an assigned case manager visiting the household regularly to assist with life skills and connect the resident with education, job programs and mental health treatment, depending upon the individual’s needs. Unfortunately, the county currently lacks the staff necessary to provide long-term support services for the new voucher recipients.

“Primarily, the vouchers are going to people who don’t need long-term case management,” Sager said. “People who are vulnerable, but with lower service needs.”

The county is in the process of hiring additional case managers and hopes to have them on board by early August. Several cities in Marin contributed to a fund to help pay for the new hires.

With affordable rental properties in short supply, finding property owners to accept the housing vouchers is another challenge. Housing locators working for the county are in the process of trying to find units.

On Monday, Gov. Newsom signed a funding package for $12 billion over two years to tackle California’s homelessness crisis. The bill includes funding for 42,000 new housing units and demands “greater accountability and more urgency from local governments.” Newsom has said he wants to end homelessness in five years. However, the state spent $13 billion on homelessness during the last three years, so it remains to be seen whether the governor has budgeted enough money—or whether the current system is up to the challenge.

Funding earmarked for the homeless is already trickling down to Marin from the state and federal government. The county doesn’t plan to leave any of it on the table.

“We recognize that this is a really difficult time, but we’re energized to see these new resources becoming available,” Sager said. “The goal is to get people off the street and into housing.”

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