Thursday, March 24, 2011

Marin needs a permanent emergency homeless shelter

Marin Independent Journal Editorial
Posted: 03/20/2011 03:00:00 AM PDT

WHEN THE WEATHER turns wet and cold, there are many in Marin — a county known for its affluence and high-priced real estate — who have no place to go for shelter.

This winter, makeshift emergency shelters that have rotated among local churches and synagogues and Homeward Bound's Mill Street shelter have helped out. But the number of people who are homeless outnumber the available beds. We must do more.

"As many as 20 people are turned away each night. It is unknown where they go," says the report by the 2010-12 Marin County civil grand jury.

Once again, a Marin County grand jury has turned the spotlight on this long-standing problem.

This year's civil grand jury has called on the county to establish a permanent emergency homeless shelter. Grand jurors in 2009 also urged the county to take this overdue action.

The latest report, "Shelter the Homeless: A Hole in the Safety Net," points to a growing need for emergency shelter beds for families.

The county has fallen short of meeting the goals of its own 10-year plan to end local homelessness, the report says. The county's goal to have an emergency shelter in place "no later than 2009" has been supplanted by other strategies, which have left too many people without a dry, warm and safe place to spend the night.

County money instead has been invested in what supervisors consider a higher priority, the Housing First program that provides homeless with temporary apartments and help and counseling toward turning their lives around.

The program fills an important need, but the number of people it helps is far fewer than those who are being turned away from emergency winter shelters.

"The county commitment to fund an expanded permanent emergency shelter is effectively a dead letter," the grand jury concluded.

We have to agree with that assessment.

The county's plan amounts to hoping that local churches and synagogues continue their shelter programs, even though those were supposed to be stopgap programs until the county found a site for a winter shelter.

County officials are now talking about using part of its Health and Wellness Campus as a temporary winter shelter for up to 20 women per night, which should make more room for men at the church shelters.

Finding a site for a permanent winter shelter has been more difficult than the county expected.

Participating churches and synagogues have done another tremendous job again this year, but is it right to ask them to fulfill county government's responsibility on an ongoing basis?

So where do the homeless who are turned away at the shelters, or don't even bother to try to get in, go? They sleep in cars, on the street, in jail, under freeway overpasses and under plastic tarps hidden in the brush of Marin's open spaces.

Sometimes they wind up in hospital emergency rooms — and some have been found dead on the streets and hills of Marin.

The grand jury, an independent group of 19 civic watchdogs, says the county needs a permanent winter emergency shelter and officials should make it a higher priority for its money and political energy.

The report says there clearly is "the need for strong leadership, cooperation and collaboration among the governments within Marin to implement a permanent emergency shelter program."

That needed change in priorities may be prompted by a new state law, SB 2, that require municipalities to zone potential sites for local shelters.

But the grand jury correctly points out the providing emergency shelter is "an issue of humanity."

We agree.

For the second time in three years, a panel of local citizens has looked into Marin's response to the needs of the homeless and has found it lacking. This year's grand jury repeats the 2009 report's call for leadership and action. Grand jurors also urge that the county and cities work together to have a winter shelter open and ready by next winter.

Another grand jury has reminded local officials that an important local need is not being met. It is time for the county, our cities and the Marin Community Foundation's Buck Trust to make the opening of a permanent winter homeless shelter a top priority. This time, the grand jury's call for action needs to be heard and heeded.

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