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How to help the homeless and housing-insecure amidst a pandemic? Local leaders compare tactics

A panel of local elected, civic and nonprofit leaders in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties convened over Zoom on Saturday to share their advice on how to help the homeless and housing insecure through the pandemic as the upcoming end of the statewide eviction moratorium draws closer.

The discussions, moderated by Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller, who is currently running unopposed for a third council term to represent the District 5 seat, offered two panels. The first was with regional leaders and included Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, and CEOs of three major local nonprofits: Jennifer Loving of Destination: Home, Bruce Ives of LifeMoves and Leslie Bacho of Second Harvest Food Bank.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, delivered opening remarks emphasizing the importance of collaboration in helping families stay housed, employed, able to feed their kids and independent.

“We all need each other,” Eshoo said. “I think that spirit of collaboration is really the glue that continues to hold us together to address these huge issues.”

Regional efforts

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing inequalities in the Bay Area, and put those struggling in greater need, according to Loving, Bacho and Ives. The three CEOs work on tackling housing insecurity, food insecurity and homelessness, respectively.

All three noted that the need for their services has increased significantly since the pandemic began. They expressed concern about what will happen come February when renters — especially those whose livelihoods have been impacted during the pandemic — will be expected to pay at least a quarter of all the back rent that accrued in the previous four months or face eviction.

As of Aug. 31, the latest extension to the statewide eviction moratorium runs through Jan. 31, so long as renters provide a declaration of hardship. Starting Feb. 1, tenants may be evicted if they do not pay at least 25% of the back rent owed during the period between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31.

Renters still have to pay back the full amount owed from any rent not paid during the pandemic, but so long as they pay 25% of it, their debt won’t count as grounds for eviction. Instead, it will be converted to a form of consumer debt, and, starting March 1, landlords can work through small claims courts to recover what they are owed.

According to Bacho, Second Harvest Food Bank has seen demand for its food assistance double, from a quarter of a million to half a million people monthly. More than half of those they serve are children or seniors, she said. Their distribution model relies on volunteers, who are subject to fatigue and in limited supply as jobs start up again, she said. Expanding California’s federal food aid program, CalFresh, would really help, she noted. “We need to invest in things that are already working for families.”

Despite significant efforts to house people through Destination: Home, said Loving, the demand continues to outpace what can provide. Destination: Home is a public-private partnership that works with the Santa Clara County Department of Supportive Housing and other agencies on preventing homelessness.

Since March, she said, the initiative has provided permanent housing to more than 1,000 people and raised $35 million to provide direct cash assistance for families seeking rent relief. Of that, it’s spent $22 million to support 11,000 families. But more than 32,000 families have asked for help.

One recent report, Loving said, found that there were about 43,000 families in Santa Clara County at risk of eviction.

Of the people they’ve helped, she said, 94% have been families of color, and 60% have lost all their income.

“They are in a state that, I think if you’re not experiencing (it), you don’t understand. This pandemic is happening in two separate realities,” said Loving. While some people are working safely from home, vacationing and ordering takeout, there are “tens of thousands of people who don’t have food, internet and a place to stay,” she said.

“It’s just unconscionable we’re doing this around the nation,” she said. “The suffering families are enduring due to no fault of their own … makes me emotional every time I talk about it. The last six months are the most traumatic and devastating that I think all of us have ever seen.”

Ives added that while the pandemic has resulted in some positive steps, such as streamlining some systems at LifeMoves and promoting collaboration between agencies, it’s also become apparent that the pandemic and its economic aftershocks are not going away anytime soon. And eventually emergency aid sources and temporary breaks such as the statewide eviction moratorium are going to go away.

Additional funding will have to come from many places, but especially federal, private and foundation sources, to help avoid the coming wave of homelessness, Ives said.

Simitian added that another area will be support for people who need help navigating small claims court, since it doesn’t involve lawyers and people have to fend for themselves.

He also pointed to another key tactic for helping people struggling with unemployment right now: getting them back to work. Large regional health care providers have been legally mandated to provide COVID-19 testing in Santa Clara and San Francisco counties under certain circumstances since June, and those systems are not in compliance three months later, he said.

Enabling people to get tested and return to work will help many struggling families get back the income they need to buy food and pay rent, he noted.

He urged Supervisor Don Horsley to push for a similar mandate in San Mateo County. Eshoo said that she would follow up to see what could be done on a federal level to get better compliance with the counties’ mandates for more testing.

“Without testing, we don’t get there,” Simitian said.

City efforts

The second panel focused on city leaders, highlighted the efforts in East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Half Moon Bay and Redwood City.

Representing East Palo Alto were Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones and Pastor Paul Bains, president of WeHope; in Mountain View, Vice Mayor Ellen Kamei and Tom Myers, executive director of the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos; in Half Moon Bay, Vice Mayor Robert Brownstone and Eric Debode, CEO of Abundant Grace Coastside Worker; and in Redwood City, Councilwoman Alicia Aguirre and Teri Chin, community services manager.

The city of Mountain View worked with the Community Services Agency to leverage funds for a rent relief program. As of last Wednesday, it had spent more than $2.8 million and paid 1,500 rent checks for community members, Myers said. The city also worked to expand shower and restroom access to residents when public restrooms were shut down when the pandemic started. Its safe parking program has provided recreational vehicle residents with additional resources, Kamei said.

Redwood City is also running a rent relief program and is working on plans to open a temporary RV program later this month, according to Chin. The rent relief program received significant funds from the local education foundation, Aguirre said.

In East Palo Alto, the city acted early to enact a six-month eviction moratorium, said Wallace-Jones. Bains talked about the work his nonprofit, WeHope, has done to build a safe RV parking program and is doing to produce affordable housing units for purchase without government subsidies. Someone without a home, he said, can’t shelter in place. And often, they don’t have access to clean water during the pandemic. The nonprofit’s fleet of portable showers saw a 60% increase in demand when public restrooms were shut down at the start of pandemic. It has since expanded its fleet to 10 trailers up from four or five, he said.

“You’re going to have more homeless people …. if we don’t figure out a way to have courageous conversations and really lean into this by making some serious decisions,” Bains said.

A video recording of the discussion is now online and can be viewed here.