During the last three years, the services offered, or planned to be offered, by our City government to the homeless population in Alameda have increased dramatically. So have the funds authorized by Council to be spent for that purpose.
As of June 30, 2019, Council had established only one substantial program for the homeless: a “mobile outreach” effort run by Operation Dignity that provided case management and “harm reduction” services. The program cost $120,000 in fiscal year 2019-20.
Every year since then, Council has renewed the mobile‑outreach contract. For the current fiscal year, the City switched providers (to Village of Love), and the contract amount is $150,000.
But that ain’t all that Council has done – by any means. Beginning in 2020, it has voted to:
- Establish and expand a day center and safe parking program at Alameda Point, whose costs have risen from $310,000 when the program began in May 2020 to $1,056,935 for fiscal year 2022‑23;
- Commit $5,840,000 as the required “local match” for a 46‑unit “transitional housing” project to be built on the so‑called bottle parcel located at 2530 Fifth Street;
- Commit $2,836,047 for converting three vacant homes, including one of the Big Whites, at Alameda Point into “emergency supportive housing” for homeless families and individuals;
- Loan $2 million for pre‑development costs and appropriate $1 million for “higher than anticipated” electrical and infrastructure costs for the bottle‑parcel project;
- Spend $1.8 million to replace the deck and three portables at the Midway Shelter for women and children at Alameda Point.
Add ‘em all up and you’re talking about more than $10 million in funds approved by Council for programs and projects for the homeless. (We’ve omitted a few less expensive items, like the Dine and Connect program, from the list, and we can’t guarantee that we’ve included all of the major ones. We used staff reports to prepare our tally and then asked the community development department to double‑check it, but staff has been otherwise engaged, and, of course, City officials have no obligation to assist us with our research.)
What’s behind this vast increase in programs, projects and spending?
Well, it would be difficult to say that the increase was motivated by an explosion in the local homeless population. The Point‑in‑Time count conducted by EveryOne Home in January 2019 reported that there were 231 homeless persons living in Alameda. That number went up only modestly – to 264 homeless persons – in the P‑I‑T count done in February 2022.
This 14 percent increase between 2019 and 2022 compares to a Countywide increase of 22 percent during the same period.
(A brief digression on a point we found intriguing in the P‑I‑T data: Asked why they had become homeless, more than a quarter – 27.3 percent – of those surveyed across the county said that the reason was that “family or friends couldn’t let me stay or argument with family/friend/roommate.”)
It also would be difficult to ascribe the increase to a heightened perception among Alamedans about the severity of the local homelessness “problem.”
As we have previously noted, every time the City is considering whether to put a bond or tax measure on the ballot, it hires a consultant to poll residents about, among other things, the problems facing the city. Respondents are given a list of items and asked to state how serious each of them is.
“Lack of adequate housing for people who are homeless” was added as a choice for the first time in the January 2020 survey. At that time, 57 percent of respondents considered this to be an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem. Yet when the pollsters asked the same question again in the February 2022 survey, the percentage remained exactly the same.
Moreover, in the most recent survey, respondents ranked five items ahead of lack of housing for the homeless in terms of severity: the cost of housing, a lack of affordable housing for working families, climate change, traffic safety on local streets and roads, and traffic and congestion on local streets and roads.
So what’s the reason for the increase in programs, projects and spending?
Here’s our hypothesis: It’s a confluence of desire and opportunity.
“Housing and homelessness” has been identified as a Council “priority” since 2017, but the “progressive” majority that has controlled Council for the last four years has moved it to the top of the list. According to a consultants’ presentation for a December 2019 Council workshop, “three or more” Council members stated that “addressing homelessness” should be given a “high priority” by the City. The same theme was echoed at a Council workshop in July 2020, where, according to the consultants, the consensus was that Council “wished we could do more” to tackle the homelessness problem.
Council then commissioned preparation of a “strategic plan” for addressing homelessness. The resulting document, called “The Road Home,” was published in September 2021. It set forth three goals: to “secure a housing future for all Alamedans,” to “increase access to homeless emergency response services,” and to “mobilize the citywide response to homelessness.”
The sticking point, as always, was money. As the strategic plan noted, the City was spending little of its own cash on programs for the homeless. “Ongoing investment” of “City‑controlled funds” was needed, the plan stated. But before Council could act on this recommendation, the federal and state governments came to the rescue.
During the last three years, those governments have showered cities like Alameda with grants they can use to provide services to the homeless. Some of the grants were intended specifically to pay for such services, and Council spent them for that purpose. But others gave discretion – within certain limits – to local governing bodies to decide how to use the funds. And Council often chose to designate them for programs benefiting the homeless.
The upshot was the plethora of programs and projects listed above – many of them paid for, in whole or in part, with other people’s money.
Since June 2019, the City has received more than $1 million from the state to fund programs for the homeless. In July 2019, it got a $756,524 grant under the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, which it used to construct and operate the day center and safe parking program (as well as for a variety of less expensive items), and in July 2021 it got a supplemental grant of $104,576 to cover cost overruns in the previously approved projects. In addition, in May 2022 the City was awarded a $285,767 grant under the Homeless Housing Prevention and Assistance initiative, of which it designated $210,767 for the day center and safe parking programs.
Unlike these state grants, the federal grants were not earmarked for funding programs for the homeless. But, not surprisingly in light of the Council majority’s predilection, that’s where a good chunk of the money went or is headed.
One source of cash was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March 2020. Initially, the state distributed $1,003,870 in CARES Act funds to the City. Council voted to spend $103,000 of this amount to extend the hours at the day center and $100,000 to run a “Block by Block” program directed toward “unhoused individuals in the business districts.” In addition, HUD awarded two CARES Act grants to the City. The first was for $683,116, of which Council allocated $50,000 for “emergency shelter.” The second was for $597,112, of which Council allocated $165,592 for the safe parking program, $246,520 for day center operations, and $25,000 for “emergency case management.”
And then Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden turned the spigot wide open.
In March 2021, Congress passed, and the president signed, the American Rescue Plan Act, and a few months later the City got word that $28.68 million would be coming Alameda’s way. The Act imposed a few restrictions on how the funds could be used, but City staff considered spending on projects for the homeless to be one of the eligible uses.
The question then became how much of the cash would go for those projects.
At the outset, staff recommended spreading the funds around to benefit a multitude of Alamedans with a variety of needs. Among other things, it proposed spending $6 million to build an “administrative fiber network” that would offer wi‑fi to business districts and “vulnerable neighborhoods,” and $2 million to provide one‑time grants to local businesses, artists and non‑profits. The only project recommended specifically for the homeless was “supportive transitional housing,” where staff proposed to spend $2 million to buy and install cabins (or similar structures) for 20 “chronically homeless and unhoused individuals who need physical and psychosocial support.” (The proposal also called for spending $600,000 annually to run the program.)
When staff presented its recommended list to Council in July 2021, the progressives, led by Councilwoman Malia Vella, decried its lack on emphasis on housing for the homeless. “I really do think that where we can make the greatest impact with the ARPA funds at the city of Alameda level really is towards meeting our housing needs,” Ms. Vella said. Those funds should be spent, she declared, on “those who need the most help.” That was “really what equity is about.”
For the rest of the year, staff devoted itself to coming up with revised recommendations “focused primarily on housing” – and housing for the homeless in particular.
The next iteration of the recommended list came in September. Gone was the $6 million for wi‑fi service and the $2 million for business assistance. The $2 million “transitional supportive housing” item remained, but now the plan also included $15 million to be used to provide “permanent supportive housing” for the homeless, either by buying the Marina Village Inn or building a new structure on the bottle parcel. Operating expenses for such a project would consume another $1.5 million annually.
By November, the Marina Village Inn was out, and the bottle parcel was in, and Council voted to allocate $4,640,000 million in ARPA funds and “encumber” $1.2 million in the General Fund to cover the project’s operating costs for five years. (This was the “match” required to get a Project Homekey grant to pay for the construction costs.) By this time, the idea of converting the Big Whites and other vacant homes at Alameda Point had surfaced, and Council voted to allocate $2,836,047 in ARPA funds for that purpose. And then, in December, at its last meeting of the year, Council approved using $1.8 million in ARPA funds for the Midway Shelter project.
All told, during 2021, Council allocated $9,276,047 – about a third of the total amount bestowed on the City under ARPA – to three projects for the homeless. (And it would commit another $1 million in ARPA funds to the bottle parcel project four months later.)
Our purpose in laying out how much Council has approved over the last three years for programs and projects for the homeless is not to accuse the politicians of profligacy. We do intend, however, to suggest that, in evaluating the candidates running for Mayor and Council this November, voters should be interested in finding out whether, and to what extent, the contenders agree with the priority placed by the last two Councils on providing services to the city’s homeless population and with the decisions by the current Council to devote so much of the ARPA funds to that end.
We certainly understand Ms. Vella’s point about the City spending money to assist “those who need the most help.” But there is another, equally legitimate position: the City ought to direct its spending toward “doing the most good for the most people.” Imagine that, instead of dedicating $10 million in ARPA funds to programs for the homeless, Council had chosen to allocate the same amount to financing affordable‑housing projects or subsidizing rent for low‑income households. Would such a decision have been less noble than the ones Council actually made? We don’t think so.
HHAP grant: 2021-07-20 staff report re HHAP grant
Mobile outreach: 2019-09-03 staff report re Operation Dignity contract; 2020-09-01 staff report re mobile outreach; 2021-07-20 staff report re mobile outreach contract (Operation Dignity); 2022-09-06 staff report re Village of Love contract
Day center and parking: 2020-05-19 staff report re day center & safe parking; 2020-09-15 staff report re day center; 2021-10-19 staff report re day center; 2022-07-12 staff report re VOL contract – day center
Point-in-time count: City of Alameda infographic (2022)
Community survey: 2022-05-10 Ex. 2 to staff report – Survey Results