When Patricia Smith landed a place in a new, small, unincorporated host community in San Leandro, she felt her four-year ordeal with homelessness was over.
The small native village was presented as a stopover on his way to permanent accommodation. And Smith, 66, was eager to find a place she could afford with her monthly Social Security income of $ 1,388.
But after just over two months there, Smith says she was told her time was up and she would have to leave after Thanksgiving. Now she has started to live in her car again.
“For the first time in a long time, I thought wow, I could go back to being a normal human being. And then to just pull the rug out from under me…” Smith paused, remembering his disappointment.
Smith is one of many who said they were told their stay had expired and were either told to leave before finding alternative accommodation or threatened with deportation. The Alameda County Housing Department and Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency – the non-profit organization that runs the site – attribute the problems to communication errors, flaws of a brand new model and lack of options affordable housing in the Bay Area. They say everyone who’s gone was offered a place at another shelter – a claim some program participants deny.
Complaints in the original tiny village, which opened just three months ago, highlight a larger challenge: Even as Bay Area towns and counties come up with new ways to get people off the streets quickly, moving people from those temporary solutions to long-term ones. housing is difficult.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, new impetus has been given to move homeless residents – who experts say are particularly susceptible to the virus – to short-term shelters with private rooms where they would be protected from the infection. Bay Area hotels opened to homeless residents last year. New small homes sprang up in Oakland and San Jose built modular communities with private apartments.
But now, as hotel programs wind down, counties are scrambling to relocate residents to permanent housing. Alameda County has found places for more than 1,100 people who were in hotels and other temporary COVID shelters, but there are still people falling through the cracks. And San Leandro’s new agenda suggests that small hospitality sites will not be immune to this struggle.
The project, located on the Fairmont County campus, is truly two programs in one. Nineteen of the mini-houses are intended for people awaiting permanent accommodation. As long as they are actively working with staff on a housing plan, they can stay until they find housing, depending on the county. The other 15 mini-homes are short-term medical respite units for people recovering from illness or medical intervention. They usually have 45 days.
Sandra Erskine, a 74-year-old diabetic, moved into one of the nursing homes after she passed out from extremely high blood sugar and ended up in hospital. Despite being offered an affordable apartment in Oakland, Erskine said she later found out that she did not qualify because she was not an Oakland resident.
She was told to leave on November 19 and moved into her car, she said. Now she is in a convalescent hospital recovering from kidney problems.
“As soon as they made us medically stable, we were on the streets,” Erskine said, “and I ended up in the hospital.”
Smith also landed in a medical respite unit, though she says she didn’t know when she moved into the cottage. She suffers from excruciating back pain, which she suspects was caused by years of being in her car. It didn’t improve while she was in the program, Smith said.
Donald Frazier, executive director of Building Opportunities for Selfsufficiency, said staff members are working to improve their messaging so attendees have clear expectations about the program going forward.
“Of course, our partners and all those involved must do better with this communication,” he said.
Smith, he said, was referred to two different homeless shelters, but refused both and told staff she would move in with a friend.
“We don’t put people on the streets,” Frazier said. “This is not what we do.”
But Smith said she had never been referred to a shelter. She occasionally sleeps on a friend’s couch but doesn’t want to exhaust her welcome, so she stays in her car most of the time at the San Leandro Marina.
Kerry Abbott, director of the Alameda County homeless care and coordination office, said staff members were reviewing the program to see how it could be better executed. Ideally, she said, people recovering from their medical problems would be transferred to the housing component of the program. The problem is, there aren’t enough mini-houses for them.
There is also not enough permanent housing. Staff have requested housing vouchers for residents of the non-medical homes, which are expected to start arriving in the coming weeks, Frazier said. But the county is struggling to find enough landlords willing to rent to homeless people, Abbott said.
Donna Ohnstad, 53, and Kevin West, 46, each say they have been told they should move out of their tiny house earlier this month. After this news agency inquired, the two were granted last-minute extensions. West, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery, said he would have returned to a tent on the tracks. Ohnstad said she was offered refuge in Richmond, but was unable to accept as she cannot take her beloved cat, Booger.
Ohnstad and West hope the reprieve will give them enough time to find accommodation.
Abbott is hopeful too.
“We are confident that we… will take the problems out of the system,” she said, “and hopefully we will lead to many really successful and happy housing placements on the site. “