Saturday, April 25, 2015

Civil grand jury urges Marin supervisors to lead fight against homelessness

A new Marin County Civil Grand Jury report says a leadership void exists when it comes to addressing homelessness in Marin, and the grand jury is calling on the Board of Supervisors to fill it.

“The county must assume the leadership role to eliminate homelessness,” the report states. “It is the only political entity that represents all of the residents of Marin. It is the only entity with the political power to coordinate all efforts on behalf of the homeless in Marin. It is the only entity that manages the delivery of social services to the homeless through its contracts with nonprofit providers.”

The grand jury recommends that the supervisors develop a systemic plan to end homelessness in Marin and direct county Chief Administrative Officer Matthew Hymel to recruit a high-ranking official to implement the plan.

“We will review the grand jury report and work with our new director of Health and Human Services to make sure that we are appropriately responding to this important community issue,” Hymel said. “Although the county has taken a leadership role in the past, we acknowledge that there is much more that needs to be done.”

Christine Paquette, St. Vincent de Paul executive director, said it would be helpful if the county were to show more leadership in the effort to battle homelessness in Marin. She said Jason Satterfield, the county’s homelessness analyst, does a good job, but she said, “his power at the county level is limited.”

St. Vincent de Paul manages the county’s “rotating emergency shelter” or REST program, which operates from Nov. 15 to April 15.


But regarding the grand jury’s recommendation that the county develop a plan to end homelessness in Marin, Paquette said achieving such ambitious goals would probably require large-scale changes in the nation’s economic system.

“To end homelessness, you’d have to end unemployment, you’d have to end mental illness, you’d have to end addiction, you’d have to end divorce, domestic violence, and rental increases,” Paquette said.

Meredith Parnell, a spokeswoman for Congregation Rodef Sholom, said the grand jury report fails to address the connection between homelessness and Marin’s shortage of affordable housing.

“There are plenty of people who are homeless in the county who nobody sees because they’re not on the street. They have jobs to go to during the day, but they actually don’t have a place to live,” Parnell said. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have adequate housing for the people who actually live in this county.”

Rodef Sholom is a member of the Marin Organizing Committee, which helped create REST and is seeking to create a new multiservice homeless facility that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


The grand jury said that the city of San Rafael bears the brunt of homelessness in Marin, chiefly because most of the nonprofits serving the homeless are located there. According to the report, “Several of the public safety officials interviewed from other towns stated that they are directing homeless people to the services in San Rafael, in some cases dropping them off there.”

The grand jury notes that San Rafael reports spending approximately $1 million per year on homelessness including funding for a Downtown Streets Team and a mental health officer. Forty-eight percent of the 933 individuals identified in the 2013 one-day count of the homeless were in San Rafael.

San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips said, “We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to work closely with Damon Connolly and the other supervisors to address this on a broader base than just San Rafael.”

As part of its campaign to create a new homeless shelter, the Marin Organizing Committee has been seeking financial contributions from all of Marin’s cities and towns. Phillips said San Rafael Councilwoman Kate Collins is asking all of the municipalities for contributions to continue the REST program so the financial burden on the county can be lightened.

“Because we do think homelessness is a countywide issue,” Phillips said.

But the grand jury report states, “The local municipalities in Marin County are not in a position to assume the leadership role.”


The grand jury notes that the majority of homeless support services available in Marin are provided by various nonprofits through contracts with the county and that the county reports spending $15 million per year on homelessness. Hymel estimates about $14 million comes from the county’s general fund. That includes portions of various county programs such as mental health, substance abuse, aid to military veterans, child welfare programs and homeless shelter contracts.

The grand jury says it is impossible, however, to discern exactly how much the county is spending on homelessness, because contracts with nonprofits are not limited to services for the homeless. It recommends that supervisors develop a “comprehensive county budget for homelessness that is clear to the public and includes revenues and expenditures from all departments and sources.”

The grand jury wrote, “Effective leadership will require a tightly managed coordination of the subcontractors to prevent duplication of services and unproductive competition. These multiple independently funded programs in Marin must operate consistent with the systemic plan.”


The grand jury also suggests that the costs of addressing homelessness more effectively in Marin be weighed against the current cost of homelessness. A February 2013 report prepared by Home Base, a San Francisco public policy law firm, estimated that just 34 chronic inebriates, 32 of whom were homeless, cost Marin County more than $2 million, or $59,984 per person, in one year. This included interactions with police, fire, and hospitals.

The grand jury wrote, “If 34 chronic inebriates cost more than $2 million in public safety services in one year, the total cost of all of the public safety services used by all the homeless is far in excess of that number.”

And the grand jury cited an August 2012 report prepared by the Marin Economic Forum that estimated the downtown areas of Novato, Sausalito and San Rafael might be losing as much as $30 million per year in revenue not generated due to homelessness. According to that report, regaining that revenue would support more than 216 jobs annually and generate $3.3 million in local and state tax revenue for city and county governments in Marin.

 Richard Halstead
Reach the author at or follow Richard on Twitter: @HalsteadRichard.

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