Pacifica’s homeless count has increased by a staggering 900 percent. According to a new report from the Pacifica Resource Center, the number of homeless people counted in Pacifica has risen from just seven individuals in 2007, to 150 in 2013. However, the report’s authors have not dropped this bombshell without offering solutions.
The report was co-written by Anita Rees, Pacifica Resource Center executive director, and Sheila Katz, Sonoma State University sociology professor. They believe it’s possible to find housing for all 150 homeless individuals over the next few years. In the short term, they advocate the creation of rotating “warming centers” which would be hosted by local churches to keep homeless people warm and dry this winter. They’re also calling for the creation of the Pacifica Homeless Response Team, a task force of citizens and public servants, which would work to find new solutions to the problem.
The most common myth about homeless Pacificans is that there aren’t any, Rees said, because the town’s hidden homeless work hard to stay hidden.
“In general, folks who are homeless try to stay under the radar as much as possible,” she said.
Pacifica’s most visible homeless person is a man named Danny, who declined to give his last name. He’s a fixture next to the Quik Stop on Crespi Drive, where passing motorists are accustomed to seeing him every day. When asked how he wound up on the streets, he said, “I just started walking.”
“When people think of the homeless in town, they think of Danny,” said Rees, “They say, ‘Oh yeah, we have two homeless people in Pacifica.’ They’re thinking of Danny and another gentleman who stays in the back of the valley.”
Danny is atypical, Rees said. Many homeless are the working poor, who use a variety of strategies to keep up appearances, she said, adding that some maintain local gym memberships to use the showers.
Another myth about Pacifica’s homeless is that they’re just passing through. Most homeless Pacificans actually have deep ties to the community, she said.
In that respect, Danny is not atypical. He graduated from Terra Nova High School in 1970 and played in a local rock band. Those who remember him from the old days describe him as a brilliant guitarist. He disagrees, however, and said he’s “just a regular one.”
The Pacifica Resource Center provides various services, including free food, housing assistance, advocacy and coaching. They’ll even help navigate the tricky process of applying for health coverage through the state. Rees said many of her clients had their own businesses or were independent contractors, and lost their customers during the economic downturn.
Katz said social scientists like her refer to this downturn as “the Great Recession,” and they do capitalize the term. Other terms she frequently uses are “unsheltered” and “unhoused,” which she said are meant to shift the emphasis away from homelessness as a stigmatized identity.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to count their homeless populations every two years. Most homeless counts around the country increased from 2007 to 2009, and peaked in 2011, Katz said. For the 2013 count, she said homeless numbers fell in most places, but not in Pacifica.
The next step is to gain a deeper understanding of why Pacifica’s numbers haven’t fallen, Katz said.
“I think it’s due to the incredibly high cost of living, and because people don’t believe homelessness exists in Pacifica, so resources aren’t devoted to it,” she said.
Katz added that Pacifica’s unemployment rate is among the highest in San Mateo County. Another challenge, she said, is that many homeless people have bad credit or past evictions, which make it impossible to rent an apartment even if they are employed. She said there’s a need for an organization to help with security deposits and to co-sign rental agreements.
Eighty percent of homeless people respond quickly to supportive programs, and it would take six months to two years to transition most of Pacifica’s unsheltered residents into housing, Katz said.
“We need to get on it,” she said, “because Pacifica can make a big difference for this winter. The next homeless count is in January 2015, and Pacifica can see those numbers drop.”
Pacifica Councilwoman Karen Ervin participated in the 2013 count. She was paired with a “homeless guide” who walked the streets with her at the crack of dawn. That person, having been homeless, was able to spot the signs of homeless habitation which others might have missed. Ervin said it was a real eye-opener to see firsthand the cars, RVs and encampments where homeless people live.
Ervin was uncompromising when asked whether there might be some blowback from homeowners worried about Pacifica’s reputation.
“To be a strong community, we need to be dedicated to our citizens. We can’t continue to put our heads in the sand,” she said.
Richard Pilotte can often be seen sitting against the back, outside wall of the Linda Mar Safeway. His few belongings are mostly books, including Stephen King thrillers and a novelization of “The Walking Dead,” which he’s currently reading. He speaks wistfully of the things he loves, such as the music of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. His ex-wife and two daughters live in Pacifica, and he’s been here since 1969. He’s been homeless for 11 years, he said.
When asked about his needs, Pilotte smiled gently and said, “What I need is a long-haired Latin girl to rub my back and tell me she loves me.”
When Pilotte was asked his opinion of Rees’ plan to establish warming centers, he tried to answer, but was interrupted by his friend, Daniel Christian Sullivan.
“He doesn’t need a warming center,” Sullivan said. “He needs a studio apartment he’s not gonna get kicked out of at 6 a.m.!”
However, Pilotte speaks highly of Rees’ organization. He describes caseworker Ann Cooney as an angel, and remembers happily stuffing his backpack with food from the Resource Center’s pantry.
“They got me a hotel room for two or three nights,” he said. “I sat in the bath tub for one and a half hours and just let the hot water hit me.”
Rees, for her part, understands that she’s issued a bold challenge to this city. When asked if her goal of providing shelter for every single Pacifican can actually be attained, her answer is an emphatic yes.
“This is an awesome place to live,” she said, “and how cool would it be if we could say we take care of everybody who lives in Pacifica, including the homeless.”