Supervisors: ‘inhumane’ not to act when empty shelter beds available
January 23, 2024
  • Redwood City — Calling it “inhumane” to leave individuals experiencing homelessness living in illegal and often unsafe encampments on public property when there are available shelter beds, the Board of Supervisors today unanimously approved an ordinance aimed at encouraging them to accept assistance.

    “Think about this. Forty homeless people die in San Mateo County every year.... That’s just not acceptable. As a society, we shouldn’t tolerate that,” said Board President Warren Slocum, who introduced the “Hopeful Horizons: Empowering Lives” initiative with Sup. Dave Pine.

    The ordinance, which requires a second reading before becoming effective solely in the unincorporated areas, allows authorities to charge a person living in an encampment on public property with a misdemeanor after receiving at least two written warnings and two offers of shelter that are declined. Prior to the first warning, a medical and mental health screening will be completed. Anyone cited with a misdemeanor violation under the ordinance would automatically qualify for participation in appropriate diversion programs offered by the San Mateo County Superior Court, thereby avoiding jail time. 

    An encampment is defined as a tent, makeshift structure or collection of belongings in a place not meant for habitation and where the person or people responsible for them plan to stay in that location with no definite plans to move.

    Under the terms of the ordinance, the County cannot dismantle an encampment unless there is appropriate shelter for each person living there. This requirement gives the County confidence it is on strong constitutional ground, unlike other jurisdictions that have made news for clearing encampments without a proper place for those individuals to go. Special needs such as pets, gender, sexual orientation, families and age will be considered in shelter placements.

    If an individual accepts shelter, that individual’s personal belongings will be itemized, photographed and put in storage for 90 days. The County will hold a bed for 72 hours.

    The Board hopes enforcement will be rare and the final step after first using its Homeless Outreach Teams and street medicine teams to engage with encampment residents to voluntarily comply and assess their needs.

    “The hope is it will be a tool to help move individuals into shelter and will give us additional abilities to achieve our goals of reaching functional zero homelessness,” Pine said.

    Supervisors pushed back against the argument that this ordinance penalizes being homeless.

    “Hopeful Horizons isn’t about criminalizing people. It’s about helping people who may really not be able to help themselves,” Slocum said. “It’s about encouraging people to get the help they need.”

    In unincorporated San Mateo County, there are eight known encampments with approximately 44 individuals, said County Executive Mike Callagy.

    Countywide, current figures show 1,697 homeless of which 800 are sheltered and 897 are unsheltered. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the County has added 146 permanent supportive housing units and 409 individual units. The County has 15 to 30 unused beds every night, with potentially hundreds more as additional hotels are converted into permanent and interim housing to join the state-of-the-art Navigation Center and other facilities.

    “We’re down now to the hard-to-reach population,” Callagy said. “These folks are drowning and can’t or won’t help themselves. It’s incumbent on us to throw them that life preserver and give them help they need.”

    Callagy and the Board are hopeful the County’s ordinance will serve as a model for the 20 incorporated cities.

    The Board requested report backs on the implementation of the ordinance in six months and one year.

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