News

Task force on homelessness helps unhoused near Bay in pandemic

The population at an encampment in the marshlands bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park has been reduced, due to the concerted efforts by local agencies to connect people with resources during the pandemic, according to city officials. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

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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."

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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."

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Task force on homelessness helps unhoused near Bay in pandemic

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Fri, Feb 19, 2021, 11:14 am
Updated: Tue, Feb 23, 2021, 10:25 am

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."

Comments

Fire Chief Schapelhouman
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Feb 19, 2021 at 5:54 pm
Fire Chief Schapelhouman, Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Feb 19, 2021 at 5:54 pm

From the Fire Chief

A contractor hired by Caltrans and under the supervision and direction of Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol conducted encampment removal and mitigation in this 60 acre area all week.

Known as the “Triangle”, this area has been the source of concern and frustration for the Fire District for many, many years. I want to commend all of the partners that eventually joined the City of Menlo Park’s Task Force.

Although extremely difficult at times, this diverse group of stakeholders was able to successfully navigate through some of the most controversial issues of our time during a worldwide pandemic.

Deemed simply as “homelessness” this title only begins to scratch the surface of the human condition, societal, environmental and system dysfunction, actual risk to these individuals themselves, others, emergency responders and the community itself, that tolerance and our ability to just look away, or do nothing, has sadly become an accepted norm.

Have we fully solved the problem, absolutely not, but those who would accept help and who were repeatedly offered it have voluntarily left the area. Others have left for other encampments. Mental health, anti-social behavior, drug and alcohol dependency and criminality often get in the way of someone voluntarily being able rejoin society.

Compassion was both our friend and enemy at times! The contradictions in policy, practice, governance, the struggle for the common good and best interests of each person was rewarding but equally painful and difficult at times.

The decision to truly do nothing for years, that was only to be reinforced by the pandemic and that failed to calculate that first responders would be needed to suppress fires and respond to medical emergencies like drug overdoses, assaults, stabbings, shootings and threats to the broader community became more and more unacceptable and unreasonable, as emergency calls for service increased and the area deteriorated.


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