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A blue tent and a red camp under trees

Richmond gets grant to house 115 people who were living under highways, but more is needed

on October 18, 2023

What does it take to move one person off the street and into housing? In Richmond, officials estimate it’s something like $75,000 in support services. 

Last month, the city received that when the City Council voted to accept $8.6 million from the state to move 115 people into housing from encampment hot spots along the Interstate 580 and 80 corridors. The infusion of cash, combined with a commitment of close to $4 million from the city and Contra Costa County, comes as Richmond grapples with a rising number of residents experiencing homelessness.

“You don’t just put people into housing and that’s the end of the story… you need to deal with the complexities of life,” said Jesus Morales, Richmond housing manager.

The state-administered Encampment Resolution Fund requires applicants to offer a suite of services that provide a pathway to permanent housing. According to the city, that includes outreach, case management, health assessments, rental assistance and job training, all of which require significant investment. 

Daniel Barth, executive director of the outreach and advocacy group Safe Organized Spaces, views this as an opportunity for officials, providers and advocates to reach the people who need help most, while addressing the dearth of services in Contra Costa County.

A yellow map with seven circles showing Caltrans encampment hotspots on San Pablo Dam Road, McBrydle Avenue, Macdonald Avenue, Cutting Boulevard, Regatta Boulevard, Marina Bay Parkway and Harbour Way, plus a rectangle at Central Avenue.

Eight targeted encampment sites in state rights of way along I-580 and I-80 have faced increased scrutiny as they have grown in size. Caltrans, which manages most of the land where the sites exist, has reportedly abated, or cleared, encampments along this corridor 95 times in the past two years. According to Morales, unhoused residents almost immediately return to set up tents. 

Though Caltrans is required to offer services before clearing encampments, advocates point out that they are often insufficient at addressing people’s needs. Barth said the abatement process heightens instability for those seeking shelter along state rights of way.

‘A whole other camperland’

Richmond is learning from its experience with an encampment on Castro Street that was cleared last year using $5 million in state funds. The rollout faced significant challenges and many residents say they did not receive the promised benefits.

With limited units available, a large number of residents were moved into temporary or shared housing situations instead of permanent apartments. O’Neil Fernandez, an outreach worker and former resident of the Castro encampment, said the permanent housing went quickly, leaving some residents feeling like they missed out on what was promised.

DeAndre Washington said temporary housing support was promised to him for a year, but he remains concerned about his long term stability. For now, he lives with another former Castro resident in an apartment that they can afford with rental assistance. Eventually, though, funding will dry up.

When that happens, Washington said people will have no choice but to return to encampments.

“There’s going to be a whole other camperland,” he predicted.

There isn’t enough affordable housing in Richmond. So city-contracted housing navigators try to entice private landlords with three months of advanced rent on behalf of former encampment residents. But that is just a Band-Aid.

“It’s challenging to find housing, period,” Morales said.  

According to the city, as of July, eight Castro residents had moved into shelters, 14 had moved to shared living situations or apartments and 15 are expected to move into apartments by March. Officials did not provide information on where those people will be living until then. The city is still trying to find enough housing to reach its goal of rehousing 102 displaced Castro residents.

With the latest round of funding, the city anticipates a majority of residents will move into a combination of shared housing spaces, private apartments, homes of friends and family, and units discounted with section eight vouchers. The rest will be offered space in temporary shelters or transitional housing.

Though officials hope that more units will come online toward the end of the three year project, Morales points to the lack of permanent affordable housing in Richmond as one of the biggest challenges the city faces as it works toward a lasting solution to homelessness. 

Simply put, Morales said, “We need more.”

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