Since the seasonal fires increased in intensity beginning with Lake County’s Valley fire of 2015, a new category of unhoused—climate refugees—have spread out across the state, many landing right here in the North Bay.
As the number of people living on the street grew with each successive fire—some people having lost their rural, low-cost housing more than once—impromptu encampments became more permanent.
Then Covid struck, throwing some people out of work and worsening the housing market even more. As a result, the number of people living in these refugee camps swelled, making the camps more visible and, in many cases, more organized.
A side effect of the pandemic is that some state and local governments have been more willing to invest in temporary housing solutions, including renting hotel rooms during the pandemic and opening sanctioned, publicly-funded camps for people experiencing homelessness. While these approaches are incomplete, they reflect an effort to make life a little more bearable while people wait for permanent affordable housing.
Rooms to Homes
Since early in the pandemic, California has invested billions of dollars into Project Roomkey, a state-wide program allowing cities and counties to rent hotel rooms to temporarily house people while tourism was paused. This program was expanded in 2021 into Project Homekey, providing a pathway from those temporary hotel rooms to permanent housing solutions.
In Marin County, Catholic Charities reports that it temporarily housed 155 individuals and families between June 2020 and September 2021 using Roomkey funds. The nonprofit has now placed 85 of those same individuals or families in long-term housing using Homekey funds.
“I can’t speak for all the homeless, but for myself I was lucky to get into Mill Street right when the pandemic started,” said James Farr, referring to the Homeward Bound Mill Street Center, a shelter in San Rafael now under renovation.
Farr now resides in a Motel 6 room paid for by Catholic Charities of Marin as a part of Project Roomkey. I met Farr as he started his shift as kitchen maintenance crew at Homeward Bound’s New Beginnings Center in Novato.
At the start of the pandemic, social-distancing protocols forced service providers to reduce the capacity of communal shelters, leaving even more people on the streets.
According to Tino Wilson, currently a resident at the New Beginnings Center, “a lot of people [had been living] on the street in tents, and now since Covid things have changed with the shelters.” He continued, “I’ve heard a lot of things that people [have] been getting moved into hotels. There’s been a lot [more] resources and help in Marin when it comes to homelessness.”
Yet the problem is so much bigger than the limited scope of the current state-funded programs.
During a tour of the New Beginnings Center, Homeward Bound of Marin Deputy Executive Director Paul Fordham painted a desperate picture of the living situation for most people experiencing homelessness.
“The most recent homeless census counted 1,117 unhoused people in Marin, with 63% living unsheltered on the streets, in abandoned buildings, encampments, vehicles or unmoored boats,” Fordham said.
That census, known as a point-in-time count, was conducted in early 2019, well before the pandemic left many people unemployed. More recent county statistics point to a sobering trend. According to Marin County Public Health’s 2021 Homeless Vehicle Count Report, the number of people living in cars in Marin county increased by 91% between February 2019 and February 2021.
At the San Rafael Service Support Area, an official encampment with a staff security guard on hand, residents live in elaborate tents augmented with their art and the personal effects they have been able to hold on to. It is a location where the city and partners provide services for up to 50 chronically unhoused individuals.
A woman who goes by the imposing name of “Mother Tigress” spoke to me at length about both the positives and negatives of the situation in the camp.
One point of frustration is that camp residents don’t have access to running water and, due to fire safety concerns, are not allowed to cook using propane stoves as they might do in an unregulated camp.
“They shoulda did this, look,” Tigress said, pointing to a portable building, one of those beige-and-gray temporary offices, the size of a small truck trailer, found at construction sites. “This is for the guards,” she said. “All the money they are spending on hotels, that’s just a temporary solution. When they could just give [us each] half of this, put in a bathroom with running water and shower … and leave us the hell alone.”
And yet, she feels more cared for now than before local governments started offering different resources during the pandemic. Asked about what has changed, she said, “People got a little more heart, you know, they care a bit more.”
Still, the Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, leaving people here more at risk of homelessness. Housing costs are one reason why California, despite being among the wealthiest states by median income, has the highest poverty rate of any state in the union.
During my tour of the New Beginnings Center, Fordham pointed out that “the average renter in Marin earns $20 an hour. At that wage, after taxes, a renter would need three full-time jobs to afford housing.”
Coping with the Pandemic
“All I’m going to say,” a New Beginnings resident who asked to be identified as “JRFB” told me during the tour, “it’s just been worse. When Covid hit, it put a damper on [my] income.” As a cook, JRFB already lived paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic. Once restaurants closed down in the first lockdown, it became much more difficult to get by.
Along with the financial gap came the social struggle we have all been facing in the last year and a half—an experience that is worse for people living on the street.
“People didn’t want to stop to talk to you—even resource people, wearing the masks and things. People [are] not acting themselves,” JRFB said.
Now he is employed by another nonprofit, saving money to move into permanent housing. It will be a relief.
As Fordham put it, “The solution to homelessness is always homes. In a world where our technology is so advanced that phones in our pockets can communicate with satellites orbiting the earth to provide realtime traffic directions, the fact that we are unwilling to provide the most basic of human needs—housing—is an absolute injustice. Everybody deserves a place to call home.”
Wilson does his best to keep a positive outlook. “I’m just grateful to be a part of [the New Beginnings Center] … . It’s very, very clean, it’s like the Hilton for shelters,” he said, laughing.