February 5, 2024
  • Redwood City – As cold rain and wind battered the Peninsula, Donovan Shepherd found a refuge this weekend where he could get a warm meal, sleep soundly and clean and dry his clothes.

    Shepherd lost his job as a professional chef and then his home during the COVID-19 pandemic. He had gladly taken up an offer to stay in a shelter this weekend rather than spend more time outdoors in a pounding rain.

    “I was extremely drenched,” the 48-year-old said in an interview from Safe Harbor, which offers emergency shelter, along with hot chicken and vegetables this weekend, and short-term housing. “This has been pretty rough, a struggle, the weather kicking you around.”

    As the weekend’s storm approached, outreach teams rushed to bring individuals like Shepherd and families experiencing homelessness indoors. The anticipated weather led the County’s Human Services Agency to activate its Inclement Weather Program, which opens up additional beds in a network that coordinates homeless services and shelters year-round.

    WeHOPE outreach van
    WeHOPE helps form a team of local nonprofit agencies providing outreach and other services to unhoused individuals and families. On outreach team, shown here, on Jan. 25, 2024.

    An activation triggers outreach teams that deploy to encampments and also contact people they know through prior outreach. The usual activation launches when, as Bridgette Jones, the intake coordinator at Safe Harbor, described this weekend: “The weather is out of this world, the wind, the rain.”

    The outreach teams are run by local nonprofit organizations under contract with the County. The outreach teams this weekend focused on areas of the coast, where high winds were expected – and delivered a lashing.

    These teams work year-round to build trust with unsheltered individuals, regularly checking in on them, learning their names, providing snacks and hygiene kits and letting them know where they can find assistance. The Inclement Weather Program ramps up the intensity of those efforts given the severe weather and what for the homeless are possibly life-or-death stakes.

    “It all begins with the human connection,” said Selina Toy Lee, who helps coordinate the County’s Center on Homelessness. “Outreach teams go out every day to forge relationships and let people know that resources are available, especially at times like this. If people get wet and their stuff gets wet, that’s going to very quickly become a health issue. It’s just a matter of time before people get sick if they can’t get warm and dry.

    "Our hope is that individuals who might not have been interested in shelter might reconsider when the weather conditions become extreme, and once they are in shelter, we can engage them in ongoing services.”

    According to numbers released at a recent public hearing, 40 homeless individuals die in San Mateo County every year.

    “This weather is particularly challenging for those who are unhoused and we need to double down on our offers for assistance and building trust,” said Mike Callagy, the County Executive Officer. “We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to help them through times like this and we’ve been building up our resources to help those who seek assistance.”

    The County launches the Inclement Weather Program when forecasts call for low temperatures or when a significant weather system is expected to strike the area. No numbers were immediately available regarding the number of people who utilized shelters this weekend.

    The pathway to enter the County’s shelter system – during blue skies or a cold pouring rain – begins with a referral from one of the County’s eight Core Service Agencies, the “front door” to the County’s network of safety-net assistance.

    Core Service Agencies are nonprofits located from Daly City to East Palo Alto and Pacifica to Pescadero under contract with the County. These agencies work in partnership with the Human Services Agency and others to place individuals and families in shelters and provide them with emergency access to food, shelter and other essentials.

    Outreach workers from LifeMoves, a local agency specializing in social services, routinely visit individuals and families experiencing homeless to build trust, provide some essentials and offer services. An outreach worker meets here with a client under a Highway 101 underpass in South San Francisco.

    Shelters are one step in the County’s comprehensive effort to achieve what is called functional zero homelessness, where every unsheltered homeless person who chooses assistance will be provided interim or permanent housing. 

    For Shepherd, the referral to Safe Harbor came through the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City, an agency he’s familiar with.

    “Since COVID I’ve been homeless and it’s really been hard to get back to my original state,” Shepherd said. “It's not just pull up your bootstraps, which is part of it. I believe that's a component as well, but I think it's situational as well.

    “From what I witnessed and what I experienced myself firsthand, we want to do better every day. I definitely want to do better every day. I'm looking for solutions every single day. I follow up on solutions every single day. So, just an understanding that we’re not looking for a handout but a hand up in most situations. Getting the ball rolling economically is my next step.”

    Homelessness in San Mateo County
    A count in February 2022 found 1,808 people experiencing homelessness in San Mateo County. Of those, 1,092 were experiencing unsheltered homelessness, staying on streets, in cars, recreational vehicles or tents.

    Local officials are compiling information from a count conducted in late January 2024.

    The County’s efforts focus on providing permanent housing coupled with services that include job training, mental health counseling and more.

    To further that goal, the County in 2023 opened the Navigation Center in Redwood City with capacity for 260 clients. The County has also purchased several former hotels and apartment buildings for conversion into permanent housing for individuals, families and seniors.

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