Increasing hurdles for the unhoused

10/07/2020

Being homeless in West Marin has only grown harder since the start of the pandemic. 

An initial push by West Marin Community Services to shelter residents was successful for a few months, but the nonprofit ended the program, citing demand for other services, like rental assistance and the food pantry. At the same time, counselors across the county face higher hurdles for helping homeless residents due to wildfires and Covid-19, and county resources remain focused on eastern Marin. The result is more people living on the streets.

“The people are really out there on their own, and with businesses closed, they were really shut out,” said Michael Payne, a counselor with Community Action Marin. “Things are more opened up now, but shelter is still not available.”

Mr. Payne’s job is to interface with homeless residents in West Marin with the eventual goal of connecting them to services. He works alone from a van, as Community Action Marin struggles to recruit a full team. He builds relationships with homeless people by listening, delivering food, and checking in once or twice a week. He brings the most vulnerable to medical care or emergency housing and, during the Woodward Fire, he helped drive six people from the evacuation warning zone to a hotel in Novato.

Most of the people Mr. Payne works with have drug or alcohol addictions, so he tries to find them a spot at the Helen Vine Recovery Center, a 30-bed residence in San Rafael that manages withdrawal and treats substance abuse. But getting patients into the center is increasingly difficult to coordinate, with hurdles at every step of the way. 

First, a patient must be tested for Covid-19 at MarinHealth Medical Center. Mr. Payne arranges for transportation to the hospital and the test, which at times has been unavailable. Once a patient is tested, they are eligible for the recovery center’s isolation room while the result is pending. But the isolation room has a waitlist of 24 people right now, and although results are supposed to take a day so patients can be moved into the general population, they usually take closer to three.

Mr. Payne has been trying in vain to get one extremely vulnerable man, who is older and suffers from severe alcoholism, into the center for two weeks. 

“Navigating some of these systems is difficult and frustrating for us—and we know the system, we work within it. So people who are physically and mentally ill or have serious trauma, it’s just too much to expect them to access the services on their own,” said Laurel Hill, the director of safety net services for Community Action Marin.

Another way nonprofits and governments support homeless people is by putting a roof over their head. Once someone is living indoors, they often become healthier and more willing to seek help. 

Marin County Health and Human Services has placed 70 people in permanent supportive housing since the beginning of the pandemic, although just a few were from West Marin. Ashley Hart McIntyre, the county’s homelessness policy analyst, said she hopes to build on the work by increasing the housing stock.

“We have had quite a great deal of success continuing to house folks,” she said.  “Housing is what we need, and housing in a lot of different formats, whether it’s vouchers, single units or something like Project Homekey,” she said.

Project Homekey, a $600 million state program, allows counties to receive money to buy housing for the homeless. The catch? Purchases must be completed by the end of the year.

The county applied for $9.6 million in state funding through last month to purchase an office building in San Rafael and a hotel in Corte Madera, with hopes of converting the sites into long-term housing for the homeless. The most vulnerable would be housed first.

The county also applied for state money to form another outreach team that would supplement Mr. Payne’s work on the coast, helping connect residents to resources in San Rafael and Novato. 

West Marin Community Services outpaced the county in housing the homeless during the pandemic, but the program was not sustainable. In May, the nonprofit began paying hotels and inns to house residents on a week-to-week basis for up to three months. Sixteen people enrolled in the program, including a single mom and her young daughter. But in July, Socorro Romo, the nonprofit’s director, and her staff made the difficult decision to let the program expire.

“It’s a very difficult decision to make, but we have to assess the whole picture,” Ms. Romo said. “We do assistance with the goal of helping the clients to become self-sufficient, to become independent. If we know it’s a chronic problem, we feel for them, but we feel it’s more the county, the feds or another foundation that should be helping them.”

Ms. Romo continued, “Yes, we want them to be sheltered, but at the same time we felt it was a permanent issue, something out of our hands. But when you’re talking about working families, and they lost their job and we help them get back on their feet: That is something we can help with.”

When the housing program ended, people staying at Tomales Bay Resort, an inn in Bodega Bay and hotels over the hill were compelled to leave. Three of the 16 participants—the single mother, her daughter and one man—were transitioned to permanent housing, while the rest were homeless again—sleeping in their cars, on the street or in the woods. Winter is sure to compound the problem, as living outside becomes more dangerous and more people compete for limited services.

Demand for support from West Marin Community Services has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. In the past, the rental assistance program typically funded two or three families a month; now more than 30 families are getting help. The group added stricter requirements to qualify, so that seniors, families with children who are distance learning, and those who can’t receive unemployment benefits are prioritized. 

Need for the food bank has stabilized after initially blowing up, but extra work is still required to be safe. Instead of displaying food on a table for visitors to shop from, employees put together 200 bags of groceries a week. The pantry used to host a rotating cast of 15 volunteers, but now just one volunteer helps staff sort food on Thursdays, because of the limited space inside.