Just more than a year ago, Edwina and Demetrio Rivera were living out of their car on the streets of San Mateo County at the age of 72.

“When we would stay in our car [Edwina] would cry and say she wants to go home,” said Demetrio Rivera. “It was very hard for me to hear that and sometimes I’d think I would want to do something to myself but I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to leave her alone.”

The married couple of 45 years have long lived in California after immigrating to the United States from the Philippines. Nearly three years ago, they moved to Las Vegas to assist their struggling adult daughter but their set $42,000 income from social security was too little to support the family.

Looking for stability, the Riveras returned to California and began living on the couches of family members. Having “overstayed” their “welcome,” they were turned out to the streets, often forced to skip meals to preserve money for gas and the occasional hotel room to shower.

The seniors called their car home for four months before the nonprofit Samaritan House helped move them into the Vagabond Inn last April, just as COVID-19 was sinking its grip into the county. Recognizing the stay was not permanent, the couple continued to look for shelter that their limited income could afford.

“With our net income, we were not going to be able to survive and it was very scary to go into a lease and then to determine after three months down the road that we’re not going to be able to afford the rent,” said Edwina Rivera.

Hotel housing

Many of San Mateo County’s unsheltered residents found refuge in hotels during the pandemic which has now morphed into the state’s long-term Project Homekey initiative, an effort the local organizations tapped to run the county’s three hotel sites say is a move in the right direction.

“In the Bay Area where affordable housing is a top concern it really took an ambitious program like this to see the impact that was needed,” said Nevada Merriman, director of policy for the nonprofit MidPen Housing.

MidPen is one of three organizations responsible for operating hotels purchased by the county, alongside Samaritan House and LifeMoves. The initiative started out as a short-term effort called Project Roomkey that focused on getting unsheltered residents indoors during the pandemic.

While considered an effective method for caring for the homeless, it also triggered concerns for what would happen to the new hotel dwellers when the temporary program ended. In response, the state launched a $848 million Project Homekey effort, providing grants to jurisdictions for the purchase of hotels, an industry hard hit by the pandemic.

San Mateo County purchased three locations, the Pacific Inn and TownePlace Suites in Redwood City and Half Moon Bay’s Coastside Inn. The county’s most recent count of homeless residents shows Redwood City is home to the highest population of homeless individuals and organizations have long been working to stand up a shelter along the coastside.

With the hotel purchases, Bart Charlow, CEO of Samaritan House, said the county and cities have made great progress in addressing its homelessness crisis. As one of the largest housing and food service providers in the county, Charlow said the agency was happy to take on operations of the Pacific Inn, a 75-bedroom hotel on El Camino Real.

Samaritan House also helped to transition the 52-room Coastside Inn, handing the site over to LifeMoves in early May. Dr. Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services for LifeMoves, said moving residents indoors and into the first transitional housing site on the coast is a huge benefit to housed and unhoused residents, merchants and the environment.

“The purchase of the Coastside Inn is a great opportunity not only to serve individuals who are unsheltered but to really provide an opportunity for a lot of stakeholders,” said Greenberg.

In Redwood Shores, MidPen is operating the TownePlace Suites, recently renamed Shores Landing. The 95-unit site is the only one fitted for long-term housing while also being dedicated to housing low-income and formerly homeless seniors, like the Riveras.

With assistance from Samaritan House, the couple were connected to the site and moved into their new apartment in mid-May. Now settling in, both seniors say they look forward to being linked with mental health support and growing more connected to the community.

“We finally have something that we can call our own and we’re very, very grateful we’re here,” said Edwina Rivera, adding that she plans to give back by volunteering in the community soon.

Greenberg said he has noticed a “sea change” among community support for homelessness initiatives as more people have been touched by the region’s housing crisis. In Half Moon Bay, support for the hotel site outweighed negative comments, he said.

Redwood City residents were largely alarmed by the speed of the purchases, which left little room for feedback, but Merriman said Midpen has worked closely with the Redwood Shores Community Association to ensure the site’s success.

Charlow also noted that the face of homelessness is nuanced. While some may choose to remain on the streets, most unsheltered residents work closely with those better off without being recognized as homeless, particularly seniors and low-wage workers frequently called heroes during the pandemic.

“These are people who work all around you,” said Charlow. “We’re mostly serving people who are homeless only because they don’t have money and there isn’t enough housing and no other reason.”

Looking forward

With more shelters coming online, each nonprofit representative said they are focused on transitioning clients into more permanent housing and keeping those living on the edge in their homes. Each agency is offering various services to clients to help with financial planning, mental health access and relocation.

The representatives expressed concerns for the wall of debt facing California residents who have been unable to pay their rent and have benefited from the state’s moratorium on evictions. While many have been given breaks on rent, when due, renters will be responsible for paying back thousands in debt while keeping up on future monthly payments.

“You can’t keep an eviction moratorium with no rent paid going forever,” said Charlow. “The only thing that’s looking like we’re nearing a … turning point is the health crisis. The economic crisis is far from over.”

Charlow also noted rent programs so far have only covered roughly 25% of what’s owed by some. San Mateo County renters also have access to a $47 million program that offers to cover most back rent given landlords agree to forgive 25% of rent debt, but the program has been greatly underused.

Recognizing the growing need, Merriman applauded Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget, which has a multi-billion-dollar surplus. The budget proposes funneling an additional $5.2 billion toward rent relief, aiming to cover all back rent up to April 2020. An additional $2 billion has also been proposed to help cover overdue utility bills.

The revised budget also proposes to infuse the Project Homekey program with an additional $3.5 billion, allowing jurisdictions to continue the search for what San Mateo County officials have called turn-key ready shelters.

Marshall Wilson, San Mateo County spokesperson, said the county is considering the purchase of additional hotels across the county.

“Our goal is to bring our county to “functional zero” — where any person or family experiencing homelessness that wants assistance can get it immediately,” said Wilson.

Looking at state level budget proposals, Charlow, Greenberg and Merriman shared optimism in the ability of each respective organization, the county and partner agencies to end homelessness.

“We believe this problem can be solved,'' said Merriman. “I’m feeling more hopeful than ever.”

Note to reader: This story has been updated to reflect the full amount of funding proposed to be allocated to Project Homekey. The revised budget proposes infusing the program with $3.5 billion. 


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