Homeless in Alameda

During the last two years, the City of Alameda opened a new fire station/emergency operations center that cost $9 million to build (and will end up costing $14 million when all the debt is paid off).

The City Council also decided to spend around $800,000 a year to add three new firefighter positions for a reconstituted fire prevention bureau that’s headed by the president of the Alameda firefighters’ union.

And the City is continuing to pay firefighters (and cops) the guaranteed annual raises included in the public-safety union contracts Council approved in 2015, two years before the existing contracts expired.  Salaries and benefits for fire department personnel alone are forecast to top $27 million in fiscal year 2018-19.

At the same time, even though the politicians have declared that the City is facing a homelessness “crisis,” they have not tapped the City’s General Fund to any significant extent to fund programs and services benefiting the homeless.  (For FY 2017-18, we calculate the total was $120,000; for FY 2018-19, it will be $145,000.)  Instead, they have focused their efforts on allocating a portion of a $1 million federal block grant received annually by the City to homeless programs ($174,401 in FY 2017-18 and $176,830 in FY 2018-19) and facilities ($350,000 in FY 2017-18 and $60,000 in FY 2018-19).

Thanks to the State Legislature (and the advocacy of former Mayor Trish Spencer), Council now will have more grant money to spend.  But, with the General Fund budget expected to run a $576,000 deficit in the next fiscal year (with increasing deficits thereafter) as a result of prior financial commitments to public-safety employees, the current Council may need to re-allocate municipal resources if it wants to devote more of the City’s own funds to solving the homeless “crisis.”

The first test will come when Council considers a new two-year budget this summer:  Will the sitting Council members who owe their seats to the unions choose to pay off their political debts?  Or they will honor what they often describe as their “moral obligation” to give succor to those most in need?  We’ll have to see.

The Merry-Go-Round was prompted to look into the City’s spending for the homeless after following the debate over the wellness center proposed for the vacant federal property on McKay Avenue.  For researching and answering our questions, our thanks go to Ana Bagtas and Debbie Potter of the City’s Community Development Department; Vanessa Cooper of the Alameda Housing Authority; Doug Biggs of the Alameda Point Collaborative; Liz Varela of Building Futures; and Marguerite Bachand of Operation Dignity.  (Any errors, of course, are our own.)

We’ll begin with a snapshot in the fall of 2016.

At that time, the City had one emergency shelter, one “transitional” facility, and two permanent facilities providing housing for the homeless (all of which are still in service):

  • The Midway Shelter at Alameda Point is operated by Building Futures, a non-profit.  The shelter is open 24 hours a day and makes available 25 beds for homeless women and children.
  • Dignity Commons at Alameda Point is operated by Operation Dignity, another non-profit.  The facility provides both “transitional” and permanent housing:  54 beds for homeless single adult veterans and veterans with children as well as nine units of permanent housing for homeless veterans and non-veterans.
  • Bessie Coleman Court at Alameda Point also is operated by Building Futures.  It offers 52 units of permanent housing for homeless survivors of domestic violence.
  • The Alameda Point Collaborative manages 200 units of permanent housing for the homeless at the former Naval Air Station.

As far as we can determine, none of these housing projects gets any money from the City’s General Fund.  The City does, however, receive an annual Community Development Block Grant totaling about $1 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Council approved allocating CDBG funds to Building Futures ($65,000 in FY 2016-17 and $74,401 in FY 2017-18) for operating the Midway Shelter and to APC ($100,000 in both fiscal years) for running job training and placement programs.  In addition, in November 2017 Council “re-programmed” the FY 2016-17 CDBG schedule to add a $350,000 grant to Building Futures to replace a bathroom trailer.

In addition, two other programs funded by federal and state grants, not the General Fund, delivered (and still deliver) benefits for the homeless:

  • The Alameda Housing Authority runs the section 8 voucher program, funded by HUD, which provides rent subsidies for low-income people, including the homeless. For FY 2016-17, AHA received $27.7 million from HUD, and, as of the end of the fiscal year, it had issued 1,502 vouchers and paid rent to 498 private landlords.  (The corresponding numbers for FY 2017-18 were $28.4 million, 1,461 vouchers, and 497 landlords.).  Ms. Cooper told us that AHA currently is subsidizing 88 units of housing for the homeless through section 8 vouchers, “VASH” vouchers, and otherwise.
  • The fire department runs the County-sponsored “Community Paramedicine Program,” under which paramedics provide health care to “at risk” people and other frequent emergency-room users, including the homeless.  The County pays the costs, including salaries and benefits for a fire division chief and two firefighters, incurred by the City for the program.

The homelessness issue came to the fore when work began on clearing the former Beltline Railway property for the new Jean Sweeney Open Space Park.  At the time, about 30 homeless people were living at the site, and the City hired Operation Dignity to assist with re-locating them.  That engagement led in December 2016 to a formal contract for Operation Dignity to provide “mobile outreach” and “case management” services to the homeless throughout the City.

(The two phrases in quotes are terms of art in the social service world.  The City’s Ms. Bagtas explained the difference this way:  “Technically, the big difference between outreach and case management is that outreach may be as simple as making a one-time contact with a person, dropping off a flyer or brochure to inform clients about services, asking if they are doing ok, then moving on.  Case management works one-on-on with the person, usually with a social worker or case manager and it goes beyond a simple check-in.  There is an assessment involved, a care plan is developed towards specific goals, check-ins are scheduled to track progress towards the plan, and the client is working with one person (case manager) who will follow this individual until the case is closed.”)

The initial contract between Operation Dignity and the City was for $242,242, which included $120,000 worth of other work such as installing solar lighting and clearing brush.  All of the money came from the General Fund.  In November 2017 Council extended the contract for six months at an additional cost of $61,534, and in March 2018 it authorized a new contract, renewable annually for four years, for $120,000 per year.  Again, the money came from the General Fund.

Even before the first contract with Operation Dignity was entered into, then-Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese submitted a Council referral calling for an overall review of the City’s policies and procedures for assisting the homeless.  It took almost six months for Council to act on the referral, but it eventually agreed to assign the Social Services Human Relations Board to conduct the review and make recommendations.

The result was a presentation to Council in March 2018 that led to the second decision to spend General Fund money on programs and services for the homeless.

By this time, the County had instituted a “Coordinated Entry System,” which was described as a “standardized method for connecting people experiencing homelessness to the resources in a given community.”  Building Futures was the non-profit chosen to implement CES in the cities of Alameda and San Leandro, and its contract with the County included $25,000 for “intensive case management” and “housing navigation” in Alameda.  (As explained to us by Ms. Varela, “housing navigation” refers, broadly speaking, to the process of making sure that a homeless person is ready to move into permanent housing once it becomes available.)

According to the staff report presented to Council, funds from the County enabled Building Futures to serve 12 homeless people in Alameda.  The SSHRB recommended that Council kick in another $25,000 from the General Fund to double the caseload.  Council agreed, and Ms. Varella told us she expects that, with the County and City money, Building Futures will be able to handle up to 40 cases in Alameda.

In addition, Council voted to extend Operation Dignity’s $120,000 contract for another year.

The staff presentation at the meeting contained two other recommendations for General Fund spending, neither of which directly benefited the current homeless population in Alameda:  $50,000 to APC for pre-development planning for the wellness center and $13,400 to install specialized parking meters that would accept donations.  Both were approved; however, no one on Council was especially keen about the latter idea, and it has yet to be implemented.

If we took another snapshot at the end of 2018, it would look much like the one from the fall of 2016.  Building Futures, Operation Dignity, and APC still were providing a shelter and transitional and permanent housing.  The AHA was still managing the section 8 program.  (Unfortunately, it was unable to issue any new vouchers in 2018 because, as a result of rent increases, its existing subsidy obligations exceeded the amount of the HUD appropriation.)  And the fire department was still running the community paramedics program.

The major difference was the increased involvement by Operation Dignity and Building Futures in providing “outreach” and “case management.”  In addition, Building Futures has begun operating a “warming shelter” at Christ Episcopal Church that offers dinner, a place to sleep, and breakfast on nights when the temperature is forecast to be 40 degrees or colder or rain is predicted.  Building Futures and Operation Dignity also support the monthly “Dine and Connect” dinners run by Terry O’Connor at Immanuel Lutheran Church.  Ms. Varela told us that these endeavors represent a “way to bring people together to engage them with our services.”  Other than what Ms. Bagtas called a “small match,” no General Fund money is spent on either.

The newly elected Council got its first chance to step up the City’s game two weeks ago.  Last year, the State Legislature passed, and Governor Brown signed, a bill establishing the Homeless Emergency Action Program, a $500 million block grant providing funds to, among others, cities that declared a “shelter crisis.”  Council passed the declaration, staff put together an application, and, according to Councilwoman Malia Vella, then-Mayor Spencer fought to get a $756,524 allocation, which requires a 30% local match, for the City of Alameda.

The application submitted by staff – and approved by the SSHRB – sought funds in three areas:  $73,752 for rent subsidies and motel vouchers; $147,505 to form a partnership with four other cities to purchase a mobile hygiene unit and to establish “sanctioned” car and RV parking areas; and $516,257 to build two public restrooms in downtown areas.

When the item got to Council on January 15, there was the usual bloviating, from the usual suspects, about “our values,” but no one objected to the specific proposals for rent subsidies and a mobile hygiene unit.  (We were waiting for Vice Mayor John Knox White to trash the proposal for a car/RV parking area – “Parking for the perpetrators of pollution?  Not on my watch!” – but he didn’t address the topic in his remarks.)  But three Council members peed all over the idea of public restrooms, and even Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who routinely touts her close working relationship with our local business associations, washed her hands of it.  (Sorry; we couldn’t resist.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion occurred when those who opposed the restrooms threw out their own ideas for what to do with the $500,000 if it didn’t go into the toilet(s).  After the de rigueur denunciation of greedy property owners, Mr. Oddie argued that more money should be spent on rent subsidies.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but we wish the Councilman had not made his case by asserting, in truly Trumpian fashion (i.e., without any supporting evidence), that “18% of the folks in Alameda County are homeless” because they had been “forced out of their houses due to inability to pay the rent.”

Mr. Oddie also seconded the idea, first raised by Mr. Knox White and later endorsed by Ms. Ashcraft, of using the HEAP funds to turn the Carnegie Library into a “navigation center.”  More modestly, Ms. Vella proposed using some of the money to buy a washer/drier and enlarge the bathroom at the current warming shelter.

These, too, are not frivolous suggestions, but we’re surprised that the Councilmembers overlooked the most obvious place to expand the City’s shelter facilities.  The Carnegie Library is known to have seismic issues, but the City does own a brand-new structure that might fit the bill.  We refer, of course, to the EOC.  Not much appears to be happening there during the day (or night) – only one full-time employee, a fire captain, works on-site – and it meets all of the latest building codes.  So why not use the EOC for a homeless shelter?

Mr. Knox White undoubtedly is aware that Seattle City Hall – in active governmental use during the day – serves nightly as a homeless shelter for 160 people.  And we suspect that he and others in the dais have read the stories about the City of Berkeley turning its Old City Hall into an overnight shelter accommodating 27 homeless people, and the City of Hayward deciding to spend $3 million to build a 45-bed navigation center.  We can’t imagine that the Council members’ friends at the Alameda firefighters’ union would object to using the EOC for the same worthy cause.

In our conversations with the staffers from the City and the non-profits who are wrestling with homelessness issues in Alameda, we were struck by their expressions of gratitude for citizen involvement and of optimism about future plans.

“The generosity of this community warms my heart,” the City’s Ms. Bagtas told us.  And the AHA’s Ms. Cooper volunteered that she wanted “to put in a quick word of thanks for our hundreds of existing Alameda landlords – many of them, small, family-owned properties, and some larger ones, [who] have stuck with us and those we serve through the good funding times and the not so good – we are grateful for their ongoing support.”

Likewise, APC’s Mr. Biggs, Building Futures’ Ms. Varela, and Operation Dignity’s Ms. Bachand (and, we’re sure, others as well) are looking forward to the 267-unit project planned for the Main Street Neighborhood area of Alameda Point to replace the existing APC housing. (Mr. Biggs, of course, also has the wellness center to root for.)  For her part, Ms. Cooper is anticipating the 90 units of permanent rental housing for the homeless (as well as 30 Habitat for Humanity ownership units) to be built at the North Housing site.

As far as the hands-on service providers go, the City’s homeless population seems to be well-looked-after.  As for the politicians, well, we’ll wait to see whether they put our money where their mouths are.


Operation Dignity: 2016-12-06 staff report re operation dignity  2017-07-18 staff report re operation dignity; 2017-11-21 staff report re operation dignity

Homelessness report: 2018-03-20 ex. 1 to staff report – homelessness report

CDBG: 2017-05-02 staff report re fy 17-18 cdbg grant; 2017-05-02 ex. 2 to staff report – cdbg fy17-18 action plan summary of activities recommended for funding; 2018-05-15 staff report re cdbg grant; 2018-05-15 ex. 2 to staff report – summary of activities

HEAP: 2018-11-29 staff report to sshrb re heap; 2019-01-15 staff report re heap

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Homeless in Alameda

  1. Steve says:

    Robert, thanks again for taking the time to write such an informative piece. Asking for a friend…when do you think the current and unfunded past public service liabilities will bankrupt the City?

    • Steve,

      I’ve learned better than to try to predict the financial future.
      For what it’s worth, the last 5-year forecast done by the City showed a $17.2MM balance in the General Fund as of the end of FY 2021-22.

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