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Homeless, in Marin

In the land of plenty, there are plenty without homes



Homeless men bed down for the night on the floor of a Novato church, one of several that are part of Marin’s temporary winter shelter system.

Photos by Tim Porter

Homelessness in Marin is often called an invisible issue, and it’s easy to understand why.

The county is 85 percent open space and there are as many places to live out of sight as there are homeless. But the problem is there, and much bigger in scope than the occasional street-corner panhandler. Look in the shelters, in the free kitchens and in the church halls—caring places where a half dozen public agencies and even more private organizations keep the homeless fed, temporarily housed, and attached, however tenuously, to a strained social safety net.

At last count, in January 2009, there were 1,770 people homeless in Marin and at least 3,000 others on verge of becoming so, numbers aid workers believe fall far short of reflecting reality. For 90 percent of the homeless, the last permanent housing was in Marin. Most live in San Rafael, Novato and Sausalito. More than half are white, three quarters are single, 60 percent are male and 334 are children.

Many of the homeless rely on friends and family to keep them off the streets. Others play a daily game of housing roulette, seeking a bed in limited shelter space. Many camp in the hills surrounding San Rafael and Mount Tamalpais. Some sleep in parks. Some live in their cars, and an industrious few anchor out in Richardson Bay off Sausalito. And some, sadly, die on the streets—139 since 1998, according to a 2009 civil grand jury report titled “Marin’s Homeless: The ‘Invisible’ Problem That Won’t Disappear.”

The primary cause for all this misery isn’t mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse, but simply not having enough money to pay the bills. The January 2009 survey found that more than 90 percent of homeless families and 80 percent of single adults “suffer from nothing more than poverty and lack of low-income housing.” Nearly 40 percent cited job loss as the reason for their homelessness.

Many of the homeless have an income, either from a job or a social service payment, but still can’t afford Marin’s high rents, says Lisa Sepahi, a homelessness analyst for the county. People in general “don’t have a clear understanding of the problem,” she adds. “The reality is we have people who are families, working people, the people you see at Starbucks who are sleeping in their car. A lot of people have an income but it’s not enough.”

The recession made matters worse. The county saw “a 30 to 40 percent spike in the demand for homeless services since September 2008,” largely because of the imploded job market, the grand jury found.

Diane Linn, executive director of Ritter Center, a San Rafael organization that provides food, health services and showers for the homeless, says “the economy has sent people into homelessness” for the first time. “For these newly homeless the humiliation is pretty intense.”

The pool of jobs, particularly in the construction industry, has shrunk, making it harder for those hoping to pull themselves out of homelessness. Competition for work can be intense; former union tradesmen who once commanded $30 an hour now jostle for work with traditional day laborers for $10-an-hour jobs.

“You used to be able to go and find a job in a day, and you can’t do that anymore,” says Chris Smith, a quiet 35-year-old man who grew up in Fairfax. His usual fallback was warehouse work, but he says those jobs have dried up. He’s been homeless for 10 years and hasn’t looked seriously for work since June.

Smith sometimes eats at the St. Vincent de Paul Society dining hall on B Street in San Rafael, which deserves most of the credit for keeping Marin’s homeless fed. The hall provides breakfast at 6:30 and lunches of soup, stew and salads at 11—about 350 meals a day. Most of the food is donated by the Marin Food Bank and local grocery stores.

Everyone is welcome as long as they behave, says Executive Director Steve Boyer, a friendly man with a seen-it-all smile. He estimates half the diners have some form of income and are staying with friends or living in their cars.

The Shelter System

Homeward Bound is Marin’s primary provider of homeless housing services. Since 1986, the agency has run an emergency shelter on Mill Street in San Rafael and operates a dozen other facilities for individuals and families. Altogether, it houses more than 400 people for varying lengths of time.

Mill Street accepts people on a day-to-day basis and charges $3 a night for a bed. As the economy worsened, the shelter began to fill every night. Last year, it added cots to the dining room and converted couches into sleeping spaces, bumping capacity from 40 to 55. Mill Street doesn’t accept anyone who’s drunk or on drugs. Those who show up smelling of alcohol or acting high might be taken to the Helen Vine Detox Center on Smith Ranch Road or simply be turned away. Bob Puett, deputy director of Homeward Bound, says the rule enables residents to sleep undisturbed and keeps those trying to stay sober away from temptation.

Other homeless advocates say the restriction limits care, arguing that emergency shelters can get people into the system for longer-term treatment. Marin County’s Ten Year Homeless Plan, released in May 2006 (and largely ignored since, the ’09 grand jury found), recommends establishing a “wet” or open shelter that welcomes people without requiring them to commit to quitting alcohol and drugs.

The Marin Emergency Winter Shelter program, a project of St. Vincent’s and several churches, operates makeshift shelters in a dozen churches. Each evening from December to April, vans gather up 30 men and 20 women from St. Vincent’s and take them to separate churches, where a warm meal prepared by parishioners, and sometimes a movie, await.

One recipient on a rainy night in January at a San Anselmo church was Stan Wilson, a 53-year-old former truck driver with an enormous bushy mustache who has been homeless “off and on” for two years. He says he uses the shelter in the winter, but prefers to camp during the summer on Mount Tam: “I’d rather be with the mountain lions and the raccoons. At least you know what their intentions are.”

Chris Highland, a former Protestant minister partial to wearing a baseball cap and running shoes, directs the program. “Where a shelter might be a cruise ship, this is a temporary lifeboat,” he says. It provides a roof during the cold and rainy season, but it isn’t a long-term answer.

While shelters offer relief, they cannot get people to self-sufficiency, advocates say. “Sheltering isn’t the solution,” says Paul Fordham, development director of Homeward Bound. “Housing is the solution. Sheltering perpetuates the lifestyle; we need to get people to housing.”

When Homeward Bound ran emergency shelters for 10 years at the National Guard Armory in San Rafael, three quarters of the homeless would return each winter. Today, that number is about half, Highland says.

Need for Affordable Housing

Few openly endorse the single-room occupancy (SRO) housing model prevalent in urban areas for Marin, but Boyer from St. Vincent’s believes that building supportive housing to serve single people, the biggest demographic among the homeless, is crucial. “We need more of the most inexpensive housing,” he says “We don’t need any more 7,000-square-foot homes; we need more that are 500 square feet.”

There are no traditional SROs in Marin and there is only one residential hotel, the Wilkins Hotel, on Fourth Street in San Rafael, which charges $550 a month for a studio with a shared bathroom.

 “Housing first” is also the mantra of those who believe substance-abuse and mental-health treatment can only be administered properly in a residential facility, and that it’s the first step in treating the chronically homeless.

Marin has a woeful record, though, of building affordable housing. An August 2009 report by the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates found that in order to afford Marin’s median monthly rent ($1,442 in 2006), a household needs an income of $57,672. But the median household income of local renters falls well short of that—$50,272 in 2006. A significant gap remains between those who must have affordable housing in order to live here and its supply, the report said; Marin provided just 43 percent of the needed affordable housing in the last eight years. Indeed, out of 107,000 houses and apartments in Marin, only about 6,500 have income restrictions for eligible residents, says the Marin Community Development Agency, most of them in Novato and San Rafael.

St. Vincent’s provides an example of how small housing can work. Upstairs from the kitchen, it has eight residential units that rent for $450 to $750 a month. One occupant is Yvonne Wild, 60, a former Oakland paramedic who went to New Orleans in 2005 as part of the Katrina relief effort, then returned home to find her husband gone and their bank accounts empty. All she had left was the $12 cash in her pocket. She ended up at the San Rafael shelter on Mill Street, where she met Gary Wild. Six months later, they got married under a large tree in Albert Park. The couple lived in the hills for more than two years, dodging police who would ticket them for camping, which carries a $368 fine.

 “So you constantly have to go higher, deeper in, and then it takes forever to get back,” Wild says. “When we were in the canyon we crossed creeks and everything else, and when a really big downpour hit we were stuck there for like three days because we couldn’t get out.”

Wild now works part time as a monitor in the winter shelter system. “I’m so grateful for finally having my own place, but it’s an adjustment as well,” she says. “I’m still afraid I’ll wake up and it will be taken away from me.” Even with the subsidized rate, half of Wild’s income goes toward rent and utilities.

The progression from homelessness to housed usually starts at Mill Street, which guarantees a bed to those who agree to an “action plan” that includes saving 75 percent of their income toward a rental deposit. They can graduate to Homeward Bound’s New Beginnings Center in Novato, which opened in 2000 on the old Hamilton Naval Air Base and includes a culinary academy, a catering business, and studio apartments where working adults can stay for up to six months. Some also move on to the adjacent Next Key Center, a 30-unit building where people in job-training programs can live for two years.

Donnie White is one of New Beginnings’ success stories. White grew up in Marin City and spent 20 of his 42 years in and out of prison. In 2005, he went from San Quentin to Mill Street and then to New Beginnings, where he works as a groundskeeper. He’s kicked drugs and alcohol, gotten his GED, and like everyone at New Beginnings is trying to save $3,000 in six months in order to rent an apartment. New Beginnings makes saving easier by providing food, shelter and access to a phone. White, who has an 11-year-old son living in Marin City, was due to move into his own apartment in San Rafael in February. “If you’re really tired of the way you’re living, this is the only place that will give you a chance,” he says. “But you have to give yourself the chance to change. It was a hard step.”

Still on the Street

Chris Smith walks around downtown San Rafael and talks about how he wishes he could find a steady job, one that gets him up early and working every day. The conversation is a reminder of how many of us are on the razor’s edge, how many are just one or two payments away from foreclosure or losing their rentals and how in a place as expensive as Marin there is little room for error when things get tight. “None of us asked for this, either, to be out here,” Smith says. “A lot of us had lives. And we still have lives. We’re not homeless, we’re just houseless, you know?”

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