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Menlo Park: Council takes steps to support anti-homelessness efforts

 

The Menlo Park City Council held a one-hour discussion on March 12 to listen to community experts respond to three primary questions: What efforts are being made to address homelessness in Menlo Park? What are best practices for addressing homelessness? And what can the Menlo Park City Council do to support anti-homelessness efforts in the city?

Ultimately, the council agreed to direct staff to look into three actions: creating a task force to concentrate on housing specific individuals in the city, bringing the Downtown Streets Team into Menlo Park, and figuring out how to set up Project WeHOPE's "Dignity on Wheels" program in the marshes near the Bay.

No date was set for when the staff will present its findings to the council for further consideration or approval.

According to Menlo Park Police Commander William Dixon, the police department in 2018 received 468 calls for service involving homeless individuals, including calls related to loitering, drug-related offenses, medical matters, welfare checks, and suspicious people.

As of the latest point-in-time count, January 2017, there were 47 homeless people in Menlo Park, he said. The numbers from a January 2019 count of local homeless people are expected to be released this spring or summer.

The three main areas where homeless people tend to go are the marshes along the Bay, downtown Menlo Park, and, during summer months, San Francisquito Creek, he said.

Several years ago, the police department made a concerted effort to tackle homelessness when an encampment developed at the Menlo Center building – the complex at 1010 El Camino Real where Kepler's Books and Cafe Borrone are located, Dixon said.

Over time, he said, the department developed relationships with the 10 or so people who had begun to camp there and worked with service organizations to find housing for them.

And while the initial outcome was heralded as a success, Dixon said, over time, their work didn't solve anything.

"They are all now back to where they were before," he said. The people the police department worked with may have different resources and be staying in different locations, he added, but "we didn't do anything to solve homelessness in Menlo Park."

Compared with other cities with larger homeless populations and tighter resources, Menlo Park is able to work more closely with homeless people than most – but if anything is needed, Dixon said, it's not more funding but softer goods: continued coordination between agencies, and time spent to help people experiencing homelessness develop trust to eventually seek housing when they're ready for a change.

Representatives from the following service agencies explained to the council their roles in supporting the area's homeless.

Downtown Streets Team works in Palo Alto, but not currently in Menlo Park, to help people lacking housing access work opportunities in exchange for basic resources and a stipend. Much of the group's funding comes from contracts with public works departments in the cities in which the organization operates, explained Chris Richardson, a representative from the nonprofit.

LifeMoves is based in Menlo Park and runs homeless shelters and support programs for people experiencing homelessness. In Menlo Park, it runs Haven House, a family shelter program that offers intensive support to help families get back on their feet.

The nonprofit offers case management and aid to help families save money, as well as develop a housing plan for when they complete the program. Those enrolled in the family shelter program stay about four months, according to CEO Bruce Ives.

After completing the family shelter program, Ives said, about one-third of program participants stay in San Mateo County, most often with the help of a voucher or subsidy; one-third move elsewhere in the Bay Area to a more affordable location, typically farther south or east (though those areas are also becoming less affordable, he added); and one-third leave the Bay Area altogether, often for the Central Valley, Nevada or other lower-cost areas, he said.

LifeMoves also runs the county's Homeless Outreach Team, in which staff do case management work within the county to provide support and develop trust to aid people experiencing homelessness.

Street Life Ministries provides free hot meals to people near the Menlo Park train station each Tuesday and Thursday night around 7 p.m., according to David Shearin, pastor and executive director of the group.

Samaritan House, a nonprofit based in San Mateo, operates a "core agency" location on Bay Road where people in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto who experience poverty and housing insecurity can go to obtain services and resources.

It also operates what's called a coordinated entry system for all of San Mateo County, and is the gateway by which people are matched with homeless shelter opportunities, based on that person's or household's vulnerability to homelessness.

In addition, Samaritan House offers people food support, clothing and medical care to help them save for housing costs. According to Christiana Weidanz, program manager of the coordinated entry system, the nonprofit has helped 24 Menlo Park households since July with housing support.

Project WeHOPE runs a homeless shelter in East Palo Alto as well as the "Dignity on Wheels" program, a mobile shower and laundry facility trailer. It's set up at Burgess Park in Menlo Park every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m.

Hearts for Homeless also offers support as well as dinners, a holiday celebration and a bike distribution program for the homeless.

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