Marin’s chronically homeless get new lease on housing

By Lidia Wasowicz

When those seeking shelter come to St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin, there is room at the inn – and sustenance and services and support.

In an outreach to the most vulnerable, the nonprofit works with local government agencies and private entities to house, feed, clothe, transport, safeguard, counsel and comfort the chronically homeless, who are least likely to secure a stable roof over their heads.

The collective aims to assess and attend to their needs in an equitable, unconditional, comprehensive, sustained manner, one person at a time.

The Homeless Outreach Team initiative, implemented at SVdP in 2016 and countywide the following year, boasts a 94.8% success rate in permanently placing veterans and other clients who have lacked steady housing for a year or more and who experience developmental, physical, mental or other impairments that impede independent living.

As of Aug. 10, 518 men, women and children, along with numerous pets, have come in from the cold for good.

Outside, biennial “point-in-time” street canvassing recorded a nearly 30% drop in the number of Marin’s chronically homeless between 2017 and 2019 – from 359 to 257.

That figure rose to 284 during the COVID-19 outbreak, which delayed the one-night count conducted in January of every odd year and flipped the slide.

The Feb. 17 survey showed a 7% pre-COVID-19 decline in the overall unhoused population – from 1,117 individuals in 2017 to 1,034 in 2019 – but turned to an 8.4% increase over the next three years, totaling 1,121 in 2022.

That the reversal fell significantly short of dire projections based on pandemic-propelled spikes in rent, inflation and job loss testifies to the program’s staying power, said Christine Paquette, co-founder of HOT and executive director of SVdP in Marin.

“We continued to offer all of our services during COVID,” she said. “Nothing was interrupted, and, in fact, we were able to house more people … because we had more essential resources, like access to motels.”

The team put in long hours to set and secure its objectives.

“Our secret sauce was intensive collaboration, holding each other accountable, working one name at a time and refusing to accept barriers to housing folks,” said HOT co-founder Howard Schwartz.

The former SVdP director of strategic initiatives, who retired in November 2021, ran into barriers on every front.

He first ran into them in trying to find affordable housing for an 82-year-old woman who spent her entire government check on a motel room. His search yielded only 20 out of 30,000 San Francisco Bay Area units with any potential openings, and each had a long wait list.

He ran into barriers in attempting to relieve the “unbearable” plight of an 83-year-old woman with addiction and mental-health challenges sleeping in a city park every night. It took a host of HOT hands and hearts to help her switch a bench for a bed, where she has laid her head for the past five years.

He ran into barriers in his efforts to make a home for a middle-aged construction worker who turned to the bottle and the streets for two decades after losing part of his hand in an industrial mishap.

By the time the Vincentians leased an apartment for him, he was so used to living outdoors, he would not close his door.

“He was in his 50s when he passed away, indoors, not on the street, and with an improved quality of life and far fewer visits to the emergency room,” Schwartz said.

“He was in our top 20 of the most vulnerable” – considered the highest priority for housing – during an initial meeting of the Marin collaborators gathered to start implementing their version of a HOT venture they had observed in San Mateo.

The approach caught their attention during tours and on-site visits in search of solutions to an increasingly polarized debate and growing public outcry in San Rafael that reached “a crescendo” at the start of 2016, said Andrew Hening, the city’s former director of homeless planning and outreach.

The local leaders’ and service providers’ efforts shifted focus with their “critical realization that the vast majority of these public concerns was generated by a small minority of the overall homeless community – the chronically homeless,” said Hening, who recently wrote a book and founded a consulting company to share the best practices he discovered in Marin.

“Not only did we know most of them by name, we had been serving many of them year after year, in many cases decade after decade; for whatever reason, they were not getting back inside.”

To get them back inside, the group adopted the “housing-first” model, which secures stable shelter without such stipulations as employment, sobriety or adherence to other requirements mandated in so-called “treatment-first” plans.

The “most vulnerable individuals, the ones constantly falling back out on the street” are housed first, with support for handling everything from paperwork to daily indoor living skills, Schwartz explained.

Convening frequently, “we work to solve the total needs of one chronically homeless person at a time.” 

Those needs are met in ways Jesus would approve.

“We never feed anyone anything we ourselves wouldn’t eat,” said Fredy Esquivel, manager of the SVdP dining room in San Rafael.

“And we wouldn’t house anyone anywhere we wouldn’t want our daughter or son to live,” added Paquette, recipient of the Heart of Marin Excellence in Leadership award, which noted the program she champions saves taxpayers some $6.4 million annually in emergency room, medical, mental-health and judicial costs.

“This doesn’t have to be difficult,” Paquette said. “Treating others as you would have them treat you makes it simple.”

Failure often stems from complex systems too complicated and convoluted to navigate, she said.

“If we address homelessness when a person first becomes homeless, then chronic homelessness and all of the horrors that go with it are not going to proliferate,” Paquette said.

Confident in the strategy, the coalition has set its goal at eliminating veteran homelessness and halving the number of the chronically unhoused by May 2024.

“When we put our efforts and dollars toward ending chronic homelessness, then catch newly homeless people and serve them immediately, this will change the landscape of every community battling this issue,” Paquette concluded. 

Lidia Wasowicz is an award-winning journalist. Wasowicz is the former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International and has been writing for Catholic San Francisco since 2011.