Progress slowly being made in resolving homelessness
Goals may be too ambitious as counties, cities falling short of getting all off street
Bay Area cities and counties set big goals to combat homelessness in 2022 as public outrage over the crisis intensified and officials took advantage of extra state and federal resources doled out in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did they hit their mark? Not on every front. But even so, officials say they've made significant progress as the new year begins.
San Mateo County set perhaps the most ambitious goal, setting its sights on essentially ending street homelessness in 2022 by making sure everyone who wanted to come inside had access to a shelter bed, temporary housing or a permanent home. It didn't quite get there.
The county moved 154 homeless people out of new hotel programs and into long-term housing in 2022 and is on track to more than double its shelter capacity by the end of January. But the gold standard of having a bed for everyone remains elusive.
“We're well within striking distance,” said Deputy County Executive Iliana Rodriguez, who is spearheading the county's efforts and thinks they can guarantee a bed for everyone by the end of 2023.
But it remains to be seen whether recent nationwide inflation and rampant job losses — which already have exacerbated the need for food and rental assistance in the Bay Area — will derail that effort.
San Jose exceeded its goal of moving 1,300 homeless people into housing by the end of 2022 — overshooting by more than 50%. That target, set in September 2021, was part of the Biden administration's larger “House America” goal of moving 100,000 homeless Americans into housing.
But the Bay Area's biggest city fell far short of its goal to get 1,695 new units of homeless housing built, under construction or about to break ground by the end of 2022. The city hit less than 50% of that goal: 789 units. Part of the problem is that another 357 units were expected to be underway by now but hit delays in the permitting process, according to Director of Housing Jacky Morales-ferrand.
Oakland moved 1,468 people into homes, falling just short of its “House America” goal of 1,500 people. The city also has 321 new units of permanent housing for homeless residents underway, exceeding its goal of 132 units.
By comparison, San Mateo County's goal was a veritable moonshot. But it was reasonable, officials argued, in part because the county's homeless population — about 1,800 — is far smaller than nearby San Francisco, Santa Clara and Alameda counties.
The plan to meet that goal hinged in part on a new homeless shelter in Redwood City. The 240-bed shelter, which will give residents their own room and provide onsite medical, mental health and dental services while helping residents find long-term housing, was supposed to open in 2022. But construction delays have pushed the opening back to the end of January. The Redwood City facility, plus three hotels the county has turned into homeless shelters, will more than double the county's shelter capacity.
One of those hotels — the Coast House in Half Moon Bay — helped 57-year-old Joe move into housing after being homeless off and on for 10 years. Joe, who declined to give his last name, lived in the shelter for about a year while working on getting sober, finding a job and saving money. In November, he moved into a studio unit along the coast in Montara with a voucher that will help pay his rent for a year.
Now, he's working fulltime as an operations supervisor at a pharmacy. And he was able to spend the holidays with his 13-year-old daughter, whom he hadn't seen in almost two years.
“I'm back on track,” he said. “It's unbelievable.”
But the help Joe received won't be available to everyone who needs it. Once the Redwood City shelter opens, there will be just 723 shelter beds available in a county that, as of January 2022, counted 1,092 people living outside.
San Mateo County also continues to struggle to keep up with the amount of affordable housing it needs to move people from shelters into long-term homes.
“We are making progress, but there are a lot of people who need affordable housing and more work needs to be done,”
Assistant County Executive Peggy Jensen said.
The county is trying to close that gap with vouchers that subsidize rents for low-income and homeless tenants in market-rate buildings. The county received an extra 278 vouchers from the federal government in 2022. Starting this year, it will have another 100 vouchers backed by $4 million in county funds.
Even so, eliminating street homelessness in 2023 may prove challenging as the country heads into an economic downturn. Already Samaritan House, which provides shelters, food assistance and other programs in the county, is seeing a spike in need, said Chief Operating Officer Laura Bent. Six months ago, they were seeing an average of 50 new clients per month. Now, they see 50 per week.
The result of that need is evident in the people who, despite recent efforts, still live in tents, makeshift shacks and vehicles around San Mateo County.
Christian, who declined to give his last name, has been homeless off and on since he was 18. He's now 36 and lives in a tent on the bank of Redwood Creek, just half a mile from the new Redwood City homeless shelter. He's put himself on waitlists for affordable housing before.
“I tried doing it twice, but nothing really came of it,” he said. “I figured I slipped through the cracks.”
Despite his own experience, he's optimistic the county can make progress toward its goal in 2023.
“I don't think you can end it,” he said of homelessness. “But you can definitely make a dent in it, help people move forward with their lives.”