Kathy Robinson says she’s attended every Richmond city council meeting for a year. In September, she invited Mayor Tom Butt and the six other city elected to join her for a tour of homeless encampments. These are places Robinson, who is a member of the city’s homeless task force, visits frequently to offer food, water and assistance. Sometimes, the individuals she approaches on the streets or in tents start crying.
“They’d say, ‘We thought we were on our own,’ and I’d say ‘No, we’re trying to help,’” Robinson said.
At the meeting on Oct. 24, Robinson thanked Richmond councilmembers and a representative from the mayor’s office for taking her up on a longstanding offer to tour the encampments. But she also delivered some real talk.
“The city is in crisis. We have entirely too many people on the street,” Robinson said.
In April, former Richmond mayor and councilmember Gayle McLaughlin sponsored Robinson’s push to start a task force dedicated to the city’s growing homeless population.
According to this year’s Point in Time count, an annual tally of those living on the streets, more than 100 homeless individuals are sleeping outside in Richmond every night. The Richmond Police Department (RPD) has observed close to 800 residents living unsheltered on the streets in more than 76 separate encampments, according to the mayor.
At a task force retreat in August, members brainstormed ways to disrupt this cycle of homelessness. Michelle Milam, crime prevention manager for the Richmond Police Department and a member of the homeless task force, presented some of these ideas to city council on October 24.
Ideas included a dedicated homelessness fund for the city; no city monies are currently earmarked for this purpose — and a “safe park” where those living on the streets can stay and have access to running water, medical care, mental health support and hygiene supplies.
They also identified mobile health services as a top priority, and suggested Richmond purchase a CORE team, a mobile outreach team sponsored by Contra Costa County.
For the past year, Jenny Robbins has overseen the rollout of Contra Costa County’s new CORE program — short for Coordinated Outreach Referral and Engagement. Teams of two trained outreach workers operate daily at key locations in the county, including Richmond, bringing food, water and crucial hygiene supplies to homeless individuals.
Prior to CORE, the county contracted direct homeless services with Contra Costa Homeless Outreach, a division of the Contra Costa Health Services Department. But in 2016, the company’s owner, Doug Stewart, retired and moved to Arizona, partially due to inflated housing costs in the Bay Area, according to the Martinez News-Gazette.
“It left us with a big gap in services, and so we quickly started to identify different funding streams, and worked with the county to figure out how we could patch this gap,” said Robbins.
Robbins said that 50 percent of the homeless residents the CORE teams made contact with in Richmond this year lost their homes in Richmond. When people lose their homes in the city, they tend to end up on the street, she said.
Meanwhile, CORE is having an impact. Since January, the group established contact with 370 different homeless individuals in the Richmond alone, and 1,200 county-wide, Robbins said.
She is also on Richmond’s homeless task force, and praised their efforts to brainstorm new ideas to address the deepening crisis.
“I think with the housing crisis that we have and the inflating numbers of folks who are homeless, we have to think outside the box, around different solutions to meet the need,” Robbins said.