The number of people living in encampments near the Bay in Menlo Park has dropped to around 10 from a high of around 60 people in the summer, thanks to efforts by a number of agencies to connect unhoused people with services, according to city officials.
"I say progress has been made," Cecilia Taylor said, reporting the decrease in the number of people living in the triangle in her Dec. 15 "State of the City" remarks as mayor.
The Ravenswood Triangle – a marshy, 60-acre area bordered by Willow and University avenues and Bayfront Expressway and owned mainly by Caltrans – has long been the home of a small number of people who have made their homes outdoors in the isolated area.
About a year ago, the City Council announced its goals to increase the city's homeless outreach and created a task force to bring together a group of stakeholders, said Rhonda Coffman, Menlo Park's deputy community development director. Taylor convened a subcommittee with Councilman Ray Mueller to represent the council on the task force.
Members of the task force included city staff, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and nonprofit service providers, including the county public health department, Ravenswood Family Clinic, Project WeHope, LifeMoves and pastors from local churches.
The area had become a public safety hazard, with fire district staff responding to a significant number of both fire and medical emergency-related calls. As of last July, Menlo Park Fire had responded to 77 blazes in the area since 2017. The area lacks restroom facilities, creating sanitation problems, and some residents had rigged booby traps near their encampments that posed additional hazards to first responders, something fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has raised concerns about for years.
The pollution was also in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, The Almanac reported in July.
But encouraging unhoused people to relocate isn't easy. Normally, San Mateo County's Human Services Agency and its Center on Homelessness work with Samaritan House to coordinate assistance for the unhoused. Generally, at least in Menlo Park, outreach staff from LifeMoves ask unhoused people if they are willing to be assessed to figure out what resources they may be eligible to receive, such as health care, financial assistance or a housing voucher, said Coffman.
For those who refuse assessment, it cannot be forced on them, she said. And in Menlo Park, the "vast majority" of homeless people generally refuse to be assessed, she said.
"It's presented a number of logistical difficulties," Mueller said. "All those things we've been trying to navigate to try and figure out how to move people there into transitional housing."
During the pandemic, the outreach team continued to visit individuals two or three times a week to check in, bring them cards to purchase food or groceries and hygiene items, and see if they needed medical assistance.
In many cases, Coffman said, they also call out the street medicine team, which provides both physical and mental health assistance.
There have been two concerted cleanup efforts, in October and January, to reduce the environmental hazards in the area.
While it's not completely clear where everyone who had been living in the triangle has gone – it's likely a combination of people moving into shelters, in with family or to other locations – Coffman said, one takeaway from the effort is that the collaborative approach proved useful.
"We've really strengthened our relationship with the county," she said. "We've been working really hard."