by Peter Seidman
Perhaps the most intransigent challenge that Marin faces is the subject of a recent grand jury report, which says that the county should take a stronger leadership role in the effort to end—or at least ameliorate—homelessness in Marin.
The opening statement of the report is blunt and succinct: “Right now in Marin County people are lying in doorways, living in cardboard boxes in open spaces and sleeping under freeway overpasses. Being homeless is harsh, even in Marin. In the absence of a government mandate to eliminate homelessness, county leadership does not show any urgency to find and create real solutions. The current approach is not effective; too many Marin County residents are still homeless and the negative economic impact is substantial.”
The report charges that the county is the victim of a “leadership void” and its “approach to homelessness is unfocused, decentralized and reactive to ‘the issue of the day.’ The county, mainly through the Department of Health and Human Services, receives state and local grants and contracts with nonprofits to provide services to the homeless. Although important services are being provided, it is a patchwork approach that has evolved over time to address the needs as they come to light.” That perspective is at odds with one that exists when programs for the homeless are examined in a different light that shows that the county has attempted to meet the challenge of homelessness, however successfully.
Rather than create a monolithic social service agency to meet the many challenges related to the homeless, a new kind of social service delivery system rose to prominence among social service agencies across the country in the last few decades. At first glance the new system might seem fractured and chaotic, but there’s more than a bit of rhyme and reason behind it.
The idea is to replace a monolithic system of delivering services and spread them to where people actually seek assistance—in a variety of venues—referring people to homeless services when they seek health aid at a community clinic, for instance. In another example of a decentralized system of providing services, satellite assistance sites take the place of a centralized campus or building.
The single most important switch in delivery of help to the homeless comes from a philosophy that simply providing housing is the best step to helping the homeless. That seems obvious, but previously dealing with issues such as substance abuse came before providing housing—even temporary housing. A “housing first” philosophy holds that placing people in houses is the most efficacious move toward dealing with the ancillary challenges that come with helping the homeless. (In Marin, that would mean more affordable housing options.)
Although the grand jury report recognizes the challenges facing the county and its cities in providing services to the homeless, whether using the older paradigm or the newer one, the report chides the county for failing to take the lead as the single entity that has some level of jurisdiction across the county. It’s the county that’s the entity that should lead the cities in a concerted effort to meet the challenges of the homeless, according to the report.
The county has embarked on an updated 10-year plan, but the report charges that the plan is another one of those documents that lands on the top shelf while its recommendations gather dust. The county does have a Homeless Policy Steering Committee and county staff members who deal with homelessness, but, the report states, the county staff has little authority to actually effect policy measures.
The issue of homelessness is intransigent to a large extent because it crosses so many social service boundaries, from health to substance abuse to affordable housing and beyond. It would take a concerted effort in the county and in each of its cities to effectively meet the many challenges associated with homelessness. Although it’s fair to say that hasn’t happened. It’s also fair to say that there are people—in and out of the county and city spheres of government—who are working to make a positive change in meeting the challenge.
And for a variety of reasons, some of which are the result of government programs, the number of the homeless in the county’s one-day count has declined. But even that is a point of challenge.
The story of the temporary shelter for the homeless is an instructive look at what the county and its residents have been doing to meet the challenge. It highlights the successes and the failures.
The history of the Marin shelter program actually starts back in 1987. That’s when Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It was aimed at helping homeless people by creating and aiding, among other programs, emergency shelters. Then Governor George Deukemajian gave the thumbs up for the California National Guard to open its armories as temporary shelters during the winter to protect the health and safety of individuals who would otherwise be at great risk.
The issue of homelessness in Marin had been relatively silent, but in 2009, the Cold Weather Armory Program was the catalyst in opening the Armory at the Civic Center in December. The county had been discussing the possibility of providing a shelter, a warming center and a clean and safe place to sleep for homeless people. In December, two homeless people showing signs of hypothermia were admitted to Marin General Hospital. A social worker at the hospital contacted a number of people who had been working to provide assistance for the homeless. Now it was an emergency.
Members of a relatively new group, the Marin Organizing Committee, created a coalition of congregations and support agencies and individuals. The county responded with funds to help pay for the Armory warming shelter program, and with the National Guard participation, the warming shelter opened its doors. Former
Supervisor Susan Adams spent the night welcoming homeless residents to the opening of the shelter. She went on to champion the cause of the homeless for the remainder of her tenure on the board. (Currently eyes are on Supervisor Damon Connolly, who replaced Adams.)
Although the Armory program was a success in that it provided shelter during a particularly cold period, the rules of the Armory prohibited anyone who exhibited mental health issues or inebriation. And it was temporary.
The Organizing Committee, which formed in Marin in 2008, had focused on homelessness as one of the issues that it would tackle in its community organizing work. The temporary shelter program, dubbed REST for Rotating Emergency Shelter Team, has run every year since the Organizing Committee coalition created it after the Armory winter. REST evolved into a program that operates from November 15 to April 15. The program, which the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin runs, provides shelter for 40 men and 20 women each night.
From the start of the program, clients gathered at the St. Vincent dining hall in downtown San Rafael and rode shuttles to churches and synagogues that offered a night of warm and safe rest. A key to the Organizing Committee’s way of working includes promoting interaction between the homeless and members of the wider community. Last year, more than 2,000 congregants volunteered to prepare meals, meet the homeless and provide support. The program sheltered a total of 325 people.
Every two years, counties take a one-day count of their homeless populations. In 2009, Marin counted 1,770 homeless people. That number dropped to 1,220 in 2011. And in 2013, the number of homeless people was 924. Although the number of homeless people in Marin has declined, the number of precariously housed people, those who live a whisker away from landing on the street, has increased. In 2009, the county found 3,028 precariously housed people. In 2011, the number of precariously housed increased to 4,179. And in 2013, the precariously housed totaled 4,388. And those are just the numbers tallied. Social service providers say that the number of homeless people and precariously housed actually are many more than the number counted in the one-day total. (A tally of the final number for the 2015 count is in the works.)
The grand jury report points out that San Rafael has been forced to bear the largest responsibility for dealing with homeless issues. Geography plays the largest role in that responsibility. Most services in eastern Marin for the homeless are located in San Rafael. The question is whether dispersing those services across the eastern part of the county would be better or worse for the homeless. It certainly would please businesses in downtown San Rafael.
In San Rafael, a proactive organization formed to meet the challenge. The Downtown Streets Team, comprising members of the homeless population, works to keep streets clean, discourage loitering and participate in other activities aimed at improving the city and community relations. It’s a tactic that seeks to bond individuals and government, residents and businesses.
The city has contributed around $1 million to the Streets Team effort, which relies on volunteers and contributions. The money is significant, but it’s a mere drop in the bucket of money that homelessness costs the city and the county.
According to a Marin Economic Forum report published in 2012, the public sector in Marin County spent $21 million on “status quo homelessness services and maintenance.” The report also states that the private sector spent the equivalent of $31 million, and nonprofits spent $20 million.
The report concentrates on the downtown areas of San Rafael, Novato and Sausalito to look at the economic impact of homelessness on businesses. “In all cases,” the report states, “the economic impact figures show how the business sector effects of this social issue transcend the specific businesses affected and affect other businesses through the multiplier effects.” The effects are startling: If programs to curb homelessness could improve revenue for businesses in the downtown areas by just 1 percent, downtown Novato would gain a total of $9,951,000 in 2012 dollars. That could add 71 jobs and increase the local tax revenue by $557,000.
In downtown Sausalito, increasing revenue 1 percent would translate to an increase in total business revenue of $11,299,000, 73 jobs and $2,775,000 in additional tax revenue. In downtown San Rafael, that 1 percent increase in total business revenue would mean an additional $9,498,000, 72 jobs and $603,000 in added tax revenue. The numbers are based on annual averages. The potential 1 percent gain would come “due to more efficient mitigation of individual homeless issues,” according to the report.
It’s a matter of where the county, its cities and its businesses choose to spend funds to meet the challenges of homelessness. The grand jury report notes that the way the county does its homeless-funds-bookkeeping makes it hard to quantify how and where it spends funds on homeless issues. The report states that “the total economic impact [on social service budgets] of homelessness in Marin is far in excess of the $15 million per year that the county reports spending. A recent request for proposal issued by the county estimated that, in just one year, 34 chronic inebriates, 32 of whom were homeless, cost the county $2,039,463, or $59,984 per person, in public safety services.” Whether that amount should be attributed to homeless costs or health-related substance abuse costs—or both—is an open question and highlights the complicated connections between social issues.
The grand jury report makes three recommendations:
• It calls on the Board of Supervisors to take a stronger leadership role in a plan to meet the challenge of homelessness “that includes all stakeholders.”
• It calls on the Board of Supervisors to recruit “a high-ranking official” who would have authority to implement a systematic plan to end [or at least ameliorate] homelessness.
• It calls on the Board of Supervisors to enact “a comprehensive county budget for homelessness that is clear to the public and includes revenues and expenditures from all departments and sources.”
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