Understanding the unsheltered among us | April 17, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - April 17, 2019

Understanding the unsheltered among us

New report says the Bay Area has third-worst homelessness problem in the U.S. What's being done to help?

by Kate Bradshaw

It's the day before an atmospheric river is supposed to dump over Menlo Park and Steven Hough is on the go.

Hough is a member of the Homeless Outreach Team at LifeMoves, a Menlo Park-based provider of homeless services, where he manages a caseload of people lacking homes over a territory running from Belmont to East Palo Alto.

On this cloudy February day, he went through the marshes of Menlo Park, just inland from Bayfront Expressway, letting the people who live there know that because of the expected inclement weather, local homeless shelters will be, for a short time, opening their doors to all comers, no questions asked.

On days when it's less urgent to speak to all of his clients, Hough takes his time in the marshes, lingering with residents, getting to know them, developing trust, and if and when they're ready, aiding them in the process of accessing available homelessness services. But today, he's moving fast, picking his way along a narrow foot trail that connects the encampments.

Most encampments have only one trail leading in and out, which helps residents feel more secure, Hough explains. Others require bushwhacking to access. One wrong turn takes him through a patch of shoulder-high weeds that's clearly been used as a toilet.

"Anybody home?" Hough asks at one encampment, but receives no response. He leaves his business card wedged in a makeshift chicken-wire fence.

He moves on to the next. The marshland homesteads come in various states of repair, but many are surrounded by sodden debris — old shirts, waterlogged stuffed animals, remains of fires.

"People get pretty inventive," he says. "There are lots of good engineers out here."

In one location, a large hole the size of a small swimming pool had been excavated; someone appeared to have been living there, though a fair amount of water had collected in the bottom. At another encampment, the resident or residents had built a small wooden hut. Most involved some configuration of a tarp or tent as shelter, providing minimal protection from the elements.

On his route, Hough enlists passersby to help: He gives extra business cards to a man on a bike who says he is not homeless but would pass them to his friends who are, and recruits our photographer to explain the message in Spanish to one of the residents.

As he walks along the marshes — with a tall wall blocking a large storage facility on one side and Facebook's gleaming headquarters visible on the other, he talks about what he knows of the clients he works with, and what he has seen of homelessness in Menlo Park.

In this city, he explains, unhoused people tend to go to two places: the marshes along Bayfront Expressway, and downtown. During the summer months, some people also set up camp near the San Francisquito Creek bed, he adds.

People have different reasons for why they don't want to leave the marsh, even in bad weather — some don't want to leave their belongings unattended; others have had bad experiences at shelters.

There are three main factors that most often lead people into chronic homelessness: problems with mental health, substance abuse, or long-term disabilities, he says. Among Menlo Park's homeless population, he says, street or illicit drug use is less common than in other areas where he works.

Many of his clients grew up in the area, Hough says. About three in four homeless people in San Mateo County say they became homeless while living in the county, he adds.

His job as a member of LifeMoves' Homeless Outreach Team, he says, is to be aware of all of the homeless people in Menlo Park, connect with the people assigned to his particular caseload, and do what he can to help people who are ready to access support services.

"Our main goal is to make sure nobody's falling through the cracks," he says.

The outreach team he works on is just one of several programs in San Mateo County working to help the county reach its ambitious goal to end homelessness countywide by 2020.

How bad is it?

According to a new report released by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the Bay Area has the third-largest homeless population in the country, after the New York City and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. Homeless people number about 28,200, based on point-in-time counts


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