San Mateo County wants to end homelessness in 2022

A Bay Area county has made a bold pledge to end homelessness — by the end of 2022.

Getting everyone currently living on the street into housing in the next nine months may sound like a reach for places such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, which have wrestled with the issue for decades and where tens of thousands of people are unhoused.

But this is San Mateo County, population 760,000, where the last one-night homeless count showed 900 people in the streets and another 600 in shelters — a smaller population than some L.A. neighborhoods.

Using federal CARES Act funds and state Homekey money, the county has been purchasing hotels and similar buildings to convert into temporary and permanent housing. The county closed on a fourth hotel within the last week and will have a fifth come online in early April.

The goal is to add 500 new units by the end of the year.

So what seems like a pipe dream elsewhere feels attainable here.

“We’re calling this the year to end homelessness in San Mateo County. This is a lofty goal, don’t get me wrong. This is very lofty. But we believe that we can get there,” said Mike Callagy, county manager. “We want to be the first to end homelessness of any county in California.”

It’s unclear how well the San Mateo County plan could be replicated in denser urban areas. L.A. County’s last homeless count, conducted in 2020, reported that 66,436 people were experiencing homelessness.

“What’s missing in Los Angeles is that there isn’t a coordinated plan between the city, the county, the nonprofit sector, the civic community and the business community,” said Miguel Santana, president and chief executive of the Weingart Foundation. “There’s a lot of good work that’s taking place, a lot of actors doing the best they can, but it’s all done in isolation without any real endgame or coordination.”

If San Mateo County “is really taking the bull by the horns and establishing some coordinated, accountable, transparent system based on data, based on best practices, with a level of urgency and clarity of responsibilities, then I believe they can achieve that goal,” Santana said.

San Mateo County, which lies about 30 miles south of San Francisco, isn’t cheap. The median home price is $1.6 million, according to Redfin, and rent for a one-bedroom can climb past $3,000 a month.

It’s so expensive that in some pockets there are “four or five families living in a home just to try and pay the rent,” said Laura Bent, chief operating officer of Samaritan House, a nonprofit that provides services and resources to thousands of low-income and homeless San Mateo County residents.

The issue, she said, became even more apparent during the pandemic, as more people faced financial struggles. A big share of those who are homeless, Bent said, “are working-class individuals who just cannot afford to live in the Bay Area.”

“Our goal is to really destigmatize homelessness and have folks understand that these are truly folks who have been your neighbors,” Bent said. “Our policy here in Samaritan House is neighbors coming together to help neighbors, and if we all put our hands under this and we all chip in, we can help folks achieve.”

Samaritan House is part of a countywide effort to push homelessness down to “functional zero,” which Callagy said would mean having a roof over everyone’s head who wanted to get in off the street.

The county’s Human Services Agency uploaded a video in late February titled “Our Year of Working Together to End Homelessness.” In it, Callagy called this the highest priority for himself and the Board of Supervisors.

Nearby Santa Clara County announced a plan last year to end family homelessness by 2025 — a more modest goal in a county with about 10,000 unhoused people.

Callagy said it was important to set a timeline because, “you can’t make a change unless you have a goal.”

“There’s an urgency here. There is nothing dignified, there is nothing constructive about having folk live on the side of freeways, having people live by creeks,” Callagy said. “We need to do better by these people as a society. We’re in one of the most expensive places in the world to live, and it is hard for people with good jobs to find places to live here.”

With the resources made available through the federal and state government, Bent said, “we are headed absolutely in the right direction.”

After receiving $33 million in Homekey funding in November, 2020, the county purchased the Pacific Inn in Redwood City as a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness and the TownePlace Suites Hotel in Redwood Shores for permanent senior housing.

Theodore DeWilde, 59, is staying at a more recently established shelter in the county. DeWilde, who grew up in the county, has wrestled with substance abuse issues but is now 10 months sober.

Samaritan House helped him qualify for a voucher for permanent housing. If it wasn’t for the nonprofit, he said, “I don’t know where any of this would have ended up.”

“I wish everybody else could have the gift that we have in San Mateo County,” DeWilde said. “They have everything for you, and they care.”

Shores Landing, formerly TownePlace Suites, now houses more than 90 seniors in studios and one-bedroom apartments. Callagy said residents are “thriving in their new environment.”

The county is using an additional $55.3-million Homekey grant to construct and operate a navigation center with 240 units in Redwood City. Callagy said they’re “going to try and pull off the impossible,” and build out the center by the end of the year.

Earlier this month, while inspecting new housing complexes in the county, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) told the San Francisco Chronicle that the result was “phenomenal.”

“There are a lot of counties where they dithered, but that didn’t happen here,” Speier told the paper. “This is a lasting use of the federal funding because San Mateo County saw an opportunity in a crisis.”

In the case of one housing complex in Half Moon Bay, which opened six months ago, 30 people have already transitioned into more permanent housing, according to Callagy. The long-term goal, he said, is to see the temporary shelters go away and affordable housing take their place.

San Mateo County residents and workers seem optimistic, about the future in their own region and about other areas’ ability to provide shelter for people who are unhoused.

“In large urban cities where there’s an enormous amount of support need, it’s obviously going to take more resources,” Bent said. “But I do think that you can take this as an example and replicate it and expand upon it to make things work in different counties throughout the country.”

Callagy said he believes this is achievable elsewhere as long as it’s “scaled to address the issue.”

“Our goal is a very lofty goal, but we think we can certainly achieve it, given the resources we have right now and given the commitment we have from everyone in the county,” he said. “If we can do it, I think anyone can.”

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