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Richmond homelessness

Should Richmond shelter unhoused people in hotels during severe weather?

on April 20, 2023

Gray skies emptied streams of rain onto an encampment at Castro and Hensley Streets on a cold January night. Untarred paths turned muddy and flooded fast, but the rain didn’t stay on the streets. It seeped into immobile recreational vehicles from all sides, splattering through frames where glass windows once were. 

While it rained, 43-year-old O’Neill Fernandez was busy lending a hand to those with leaking RVs. Fernandez, who works with the nonprofit Safe Organized Spaces, tried to drape tarpaulins over the RVs, battling winds so strong they were breaking ropes as the tarps were being affixed. In one way, the 50 or so people living around Castro Street were lucky, Fernandez said, “During these rains, a lot of encampments that are next to waterways got washed away.”

Leyla Williams feared that she and her 18 year old daughter would be among them. 

“I felt like my trailer was going to blow away all over a couple of times. Like, I need to get an emergency kit and get out. I felt like I needed to evacuate,” she said.

Richmond homelessness
Tarp covers RVs during the rainy winter. (All photos by Aneta Felix)

The city, through Contra Costa County, offered an alternative to being outside, inundated with cold rain. But many of those who lack housing chose the streets or leaking RVs over county-run shelters, not just in January, but in the series of storms that pelted the Bay Area throughout the winter. 

Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez raised the issue of better storm shelters for homeless residents during a Jan. 17 City Council meeting, asking why those people weren’t offered hotel rooms, as  homeowners were who evacuated from the Seacliff development, which was threatened by a landslide.

“We put them in hotels and even took care of their pets,” Martinez said. “Whereas with the houseless individuals, they go to shelters and they can’t have their pets. In fact, they don’t have the ability to come and go as they please, like the people who have the hotel rooms.” 

By the time spring arrived and mild weather returned to the region, the issue remained unresolved. 

In a recent interview, Martinez pointed to friction between the City Council and city manager. The council wants policies favorable to unhoused people, and the city manager looks at the financial feasibility of such policies, he noted. 

“It really is a matter of having a council and city manager who are in sync with one another,” he said. 

City Manager Shasa Curl did not respond to requests for an interview. 

Finding permanent housing for people living in vehicles and on the street is an ongoing problem in the Bay Area. Last year, Richmond received a $4.8 million grant to evacuate the Castro Street encampment and provide residents with permanent housing, as part of a $14 billion initiative from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to tackle the state’s homelessness crisis. A year later, some of those residents are still in limbo  and new people have taken their place in the same encampment.

Caprice Roos now lives in an RV there with her partner, Vincent Esquivel. Roos, 27, said she preferred the soggy conditions to a shelter. 

“I’ve been in group homes my whole life,” she said. “So I feel like shelters are the same thing, and I’ve had bad experiences with that.” 

Esquivel can’t abide by house rules such as curfews and no smoking, or deal with the lack of privacy at shelters. 

“You might as well be in jail,” he said. 

Asked if they would use hotel accommodations during storms, however, their response was a resounding yes. 

Richmond homelessness
The Castro encampment has residents again, months after the city cleared it.

Richmond fire Chief Angel Montoya told they City Council in January that the county sets up the shelter ground rules. He said the city’s Emergency Operations Center was busy handling flooding and other issues during the storms and did not have the personnel to address the concerns of people who declined the county shelter. 

“I find it hard to understand how the EOC has the purview to address a weather emergency for people with money, but they don’t have the purview to address a weather emergency for houseless people,” Martinez said at the meeting. “Whether we like it or not, they are Richmond residents. They are part of our family, and we need to take care of them as we take care of us.”

Three months after the mayor’s hotel accommodation queries, Jesus Morales, Richmond housing manager, confirmed, “There are no plans at this time for the city to house the homeless in hotels during bad weather.” 

Richmond’s homeless community remains vulnerable to the next atmospheric river that could drench California. Winter storms wrecked many encampments and left countless people cold, wet and miserable. During a wind-driven rainstorm in March, a homeless man in Oakland was killed when an oak tree fell on his tent.

Daniel Barth, the CEO at SOS, which employs homeless residents to deliver care and outreach programs to the unhoused community, has been managing shelters for 26 years. He said the winning formula to get people off the street is to have a shelter with private rooms, where people are allowed to bring their pets, possessions and partners. People prefer independence over congregate spaces where they feel like they are “treated like children,” he said. 

On March 29, the California Department of Housing and Community Development opened applications for $736 million in Homekey grants to provide interim housing for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. 

Council member Gayle McLaughlin said Richmond expects to apply for the money as well as for other grants. She said the city had identified five possible sites for housing projects, but that it would not move forward without input from residents.

“We need to review any site first with the community,” she said.

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