By Joe Livernois
The check showed up in the mail last week. It was a substantial amount — $12,505,250 from the state of California, payable to the “Coalition of Homeless Services Providers.” Monterey County’s share of that check is in the neighborhood of $10.5 million, with the balance going to San Benito County.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the money needs to be spent on some meaningful emergency homeless shelters and programs in the counties by June 30, 2021. Everyone will declare — on the record — that the money will solve a real problem in Monterey County. But plopping a homeless shelter in even the most appropriate neighborhood has historically proven to be difficult, as neighbors and business interests organize opposition.
So with the clock ticking, advocates for the homeless are moving full speed to identify sites, services and administrators for homeless shelters in Salinas and on the Monterey Peninsula.
“We’re five miracles away from making this happen,” said Wendy Root Askew, an aide for Monterey County Supervisor Jane Parker and a Monterey Peninsula Unified School District board member.
Askew is not a member of the homeless coalition’s Leadership Council, the formal body that is ultimately responsible for how that $12.5 million check gets spent. But Askew’s mission is to make certain that political leaders on the Monterey Peninsula take ownership of the homeless problem on the Peninsula. “Everyone has to do their part,” she said.
It will be a tough sell, but several sites have been identified for a possible shelter, in Seaside and in Marina, and most of the city councils on the Peninsula are on-board participants. The exceptions are Del Rey Oaks and Carmel.
Proof of the need for shelter on the Peninsula was evident several mornings ago, as the sun struggled to break through the clouds over Monterey after a heavy, cold rain. It was seven in the morning, and homeless men were gathering their bedding from under the eaves and porches of the historic adobes at the entrance to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Several hundred yards away, a homeless man pedalled his rickety 10-speed to a spot along the Recreation Trail. He carried breakfast in a paper bag to the temporary encampment he and his partner had set up under the cypress trees along the ledge overlooking the calm waters of Monterey’s back harbor. An otter floated by, smacking a shellfish against a rock. The homeless man slipped into a tent, and the couple’s bucolic temporary camp would disappear by 10 o’clock that day as the couple disappeared into the city.
Where did this money come from?
Six months before his retirement from public office last month, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that created the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, now known as HEAP. The bill, SB850, authorized the distribution of $500 million for the purpose of establishing homeless shelters throughout the state.
The funding is considered a “one-time” expenditure, and the legislation generally gives locals the ability to spend the money as they deem appropriate. It does mandate streamlined environmental-quality reviews for projects in communities. The amount of money each county received was based on numbers of homeless people counted during a “point-in-time” census that took place in each county in January 2017.
For expediency’s sake, San Benito County was lumped in with Monterey County and officials in the neighboring county will need to decide what to do with their share. Allowable uses are for any program that “addresses homelessness,” including homeless prevention, criminal justice and mental health programs. And the cities can contribute their share of funds for a more regional solution.
Notably, HEAP requirements do require that at least 5 percent of the funds be spent for shelter and programs designed for homeless youth. The Leadership Council has agreed to commit more than $1.5 million for youth homeless services or projects.
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, who is chairman of the Leadership Council, said the group will start the formal process of soliciting for proposals in June.
The practical realities
Officials in Salinas are a step or two ahead of the curve. Over the years, Salinas was expected to accommodate homeless shelters and low-cost housing projects. It is the largest city in the county, with the largest number of homeless.
During that homeless census two years ago, volunteers counted 1,361 homeless individuals in Salinas, about half of the homeless counted in the entire county. Of those, almost 1,100 were not staying in shelters. (A new point-in-time homeless census was conducted last week and results of that count are expected later this year.)
Salinas officials have noted that a significant number of the city’s population commutes to the Monterey Peninsula to work because they can’t afford to live on the Peninsula, that the high cost of luxury on the Peninsula is driving up the cost of living in Salinas, and that it shouldn’t have to bear the full cost of providing shelter to the homeless and to low-income residents who struggle to find affordable housing.
When HEAP money became available, leaders and homeless advocates in the county decided to invite people outside the political realm to take lead roles in determining how that money gets spent. The Leadership Council, which meets periodically, does include some city officials, but it also includes high-profile leaders from local nonprofit organizations, like Dan Baldwin of the Community Foundation for Monterey County and Robin McCrae of Community Human Services. It also includes representatives from local organizations that already provide low-income housing, like the Monterey County Housing Authority and the Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association Inc., known as CHISPA.
The county already has an emergency homeless shelter, located in portable buildings on West Alisal Street, across from the county Courthouse and Government Center. The Leadership Council is considering spending some of the HEAP money to relocate and expand the shelter on property the county owns on East Laurel Street, near the county-owned Natividad Medical Center. However, residents at the Creekbridge subdivision have been attending Leadership Council meetings to register their opposition to the site.
Locations on the Monterey Peninsula are also likely to meet resistance. The Veterans Transition Center, located in a section of Marina that was once Fort Ord, has offered the basement of its expansive building on 12th Street, but Marina city officials have not endorsed that idea, at least not yet. According to the 2017 homeless census, Marina already provides shelter to the largest number of homeless people in the county. That census indicated that 724 of the 2,835 homeless people in the county were staying in shelters, and that 356 of those were living in shelters located in Marina. That is compared to the 46 people living in shelters in Monterey.
“Marina can and wants to do more, but equitably with intelligent fair share from all cities,” said Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado. “I’m not sure where Carmel, PG, Monterey, DRO and Sand City is in all this, but we all need to do our part according to our resources and homeless population. I think Marina is way beyond its fair share now but willing to do more.”
The Leadership Council is also exploring a county-owned parcel in the middle of Seaside, on the county’s Social Services office parking lot on Broadway. A couple of Seaside councilmen, David Pacheco and Jon Wizard, will run that proposal up the flagpole when they convene a public meeting for Seaside residents at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 at Oldemeyer Center.
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