City, County Address Continuing Homelessness Crisis as Point-In-Time Count Shows 10% Uptick in Martinez from 2020 to 2023
While City Council grills CORE team over effectiveness of services, county report cites cost of housing as top driver of homelessness; Planning Commission OKs revised Housing Element
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By Tom Lochner
The city's homelessness outreach services provider, CORE, faced intense grilling at a Martinez City Council meeting earlier this month over the scope and effectiveness of its performance since its contract was expanded at the start of the current fiscal year.
Contra Costa Health Services, which includes CORE (Coordinated Outreach Referral and Engagement program), got a more upbeat response from the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 7, as it delivered its Homeless Services Annual Report. It noted a 4 percent increase countywide between 2020 and 2023 in the federally mandated Point-in-Time Count — the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night, or "a one-day snapshot of homelessness," as one official put it — to 2,372 at latest count. Of that total, 1,653 were unsheltered.
Martinez's count of unsheltered people increased by just over 10 percent during that period, from 127 to 140. The 2023 Point-in-Time Count for Contra Costa, with some information broken down by cities, is at https://cchealth.org/h3/coc/pdf/PIT-infographic-2023.pdf.
County officials say the actual number of homeless people in Contra Costa is way higher than the Point-in-Time Count of 2,372, which was conducted on Jan. 25 amid a period of wet, stormy weather. Over the past year, the county served more than 10,000 "literally homeless" people in its Continuum of Care program, according to the annual report.
At the Martinez City Council’s Nov. 1 meeting, after CORE delivered a PowerPoint presentation describing its accomplishments over the first quarter of fiscal year 2023-24, the discussion delved into local logistics but largely steered clear of a widely acknowledged main cause of homelessness, locally as well as state and nationwide: a scarcity of affordable housing.
CORE's Homeless Services chief Jenny Robbins did address the issue, acknowledging that "the cost of housing in Contra Costa is unaffordable," and that the notion that we need more affordable housing opportunities is "absolutely correct."
"We've got a less-than-2-percent vacancy rate in Contra Costa County," Robbins said. "Whether you're unhoused or… making a million dollars a year… we don't have enough housing stock."
How the lack of affordable housing contributes to homelessness was stated clearly over at the Board of Supervisors during a PowerPoint presentation of the annual report: "Cost of housing is the biggest factor in a community’s rate of homelessness." That PowerPoint is at https://contra-costa.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=12415363&GUID=A477B814-E756-4DB6-851C-F45DE378C0AC.
"Increased access to housing, permanent supportive housing, interim housing: We need more," Heather Cedermaz, county Healthcare for the Homeless Medical Director, told the Supervisors.
It's a problem that the city of Martinez is also wrestling with after years of significant failure to meet state-mandated targets for housing growth, particularly at the lowest income levels. On Nov. 14, the Planning Commission sent to the City Council a recommendation to approve a Revised 2023-31 Housing Element and submit it to the state Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) for certification, as well as amendments to the General Plan and the Zoning Text and Map, with a goal to promote more affordable housing. HCD asked for revisions to the Element after Martinez submitted its first plan earlier this year.
Workers need to earn an hourly income of $41.77 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Contra Costa County, according to the Annual Report presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 7 — by now actually closer to $44 an hour, noted Christy Saxton, the county's Director of Health, Housing and Homeless Services (H3); in neighboring Solano County, the amount is around $33.
Board Chairman John Gioia wondered about the specifics of rent and income figures and how they were arrived at, but no clear explanation was immediately forthcoming.
At the Martinez City Council, CORE Program Director Fadi Elhayek defined CORE's mission as "to engage and stabilize homeless individuals living outside, through consistent outreach to facilitate and/or deliver health and basic needs services and secure permanent housing."
That includes distributing clothing and hygiene products, and sometimes providing minor medical care, at homeless encampments; referrals to food and health care; inputting elderly homeless individuals into the County Homeless Coordinated Entry System; and other assistance in getting into a shelter, a warming center, or an interim housing program.
Elhayek said CORE operates seven days a week from 8 a.m. to midnight, and is budgeted for 38 outreach specialists in the field, 11 care coordinators and four dispatchers countywide. The PowerPoint describes CORE as "a mobile front door to services." At least 15 businesses in downtown Martinez as well as the Martinez Library were contacted by CORE outreach teams, he added.
Martinez has contracted with CORE since the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to City Manager Michael Chandler. CORE saw its contract with the city beefed up by a one-time allocation of $130,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, to $269,729 for fiscal year 2024, which runs from July 2023 through June 2024. Expanded services include a full-time team of two workers providing 40 hours a week of services in Martinez, according to a city staff report.
"With the addition of staff, CORE has been able to respond to emerging concerns," the staff report, prepared by police Chief Andrew White, says in part. "For example, following concerns raised downtown, the team provided additional outreach, including leveraging other county teams to visit the area on the weekend and during the evening."
The CORE team, which now wears high-visibility yellow vests with the words "OUTREACH MARTINEZ," conducts outreach to businesses and responds to requests to the 211 phone number, the staff report adds. The 211 number, managed by the Contra Costa Crisis Center, facilitates access to health and social services.
Additionally, "The Police Department increased communication with CORE through bi-weekly meetings with CORE leadership during which challenges, successes and opportunities are discussed," the report adds. "The Department and CORE implemented a diversion of calls for services related to the unhoused. Calls for service that would ordinarily be sent to an officer are directly routed to CORE staff."
White's report also noted challenges, among them "individuals who generate calls for service and engage in behavior that is disruptive to other residents and the operation of businesses, but who refuse services." Another is the burden of encampments — one, at the waterfront on city property, was estimated to cost $35,000 to clean up.
"The barriers to resolving issues can also cause distrust within the community," White's report continued, as "residents and business owners become frustrated because of the lack of resolution."
But altogether, "we have made a lot of progress," he told the council.
Later in the meeting, Chandler reported that revised estimates of the cost of abating two homeless camps — the one at the waterfront and another at the Berrellesa Street bridge — came in at “way less than what we had anticipated.” The city reported on social media last week that both cleanups had been completed.
Following White's report, a delegation from CORE — Elhayek, Robbins and Coordinator Rebecca Sanders — presented statistics comparing the first quarters of the current and past fiscal years. The number of individuals served went from 71 to 117, a 65 percent increase; contacts more than doubled, from 321 to 675. Individuals served who were homeless for more than five years increased from 39 to 60. Individuals reporting a disabling condition went from 17 to 109 — that's 93 percent of the individuals served in the latest quarter.
Two council members, Jay Howard and Satinder Malhi, offered some pointed criticism as well as specific logistical suggestions on how to solve what they perceive as shortcomings in CORE's performance locally. The other three council members, Vice Mayor Mark Ross, Debbie McKillop and Mayor Brianne Zorn, were more appreciative of CORE's efforts, with Ross acknowledging that the homeless footprint in the downtown area, where his own business is, has abated somewhat.
"I do see fewer issues around my office," Ross said, giving some credit to the CORE program.
Howard praised the CORE workers for their interactions with the people at a shower facility and acknowledged the difficulty of finding shelter spaces to place them into.
Pivoting to staffing issues, Howard was less congratulatory.
"Recently, I did actually get someone to answer the phone. And I was so thankful that there was somebody that actually said, 'Hello, can I help you?'" he said, adding that 99 percent of the time when he calls CORE, he gets a recording.
"When you make that call, and nobody answers, that must be just a loss of a precious moment, when they are willing to reach out."
Robbins responded that the team has extra dispatchers — now there are four — but that still isn't enough to meet the need. She described a team stretched thin that logs about 300 calls a day to the 211 number and is now looking into getting a more efficient phone system that would enable callers to receive a callback
Howard, decrying the lack of shelter beds in the area — a problem he acknowledged isn't the CORE team's fault — asked: "Why should we spend this money that we don't have anymore" — a reference to the one-time infusion of $130,000 in ARPA funds — "on a service that you yourself are telling us you can't provide?"
In response, Robbins cited numerous services that CORE provides short of direct shelter placement, among them: steering people to housing, connecting them to health care treatment, helping them get their documents together (get them "doc-ready"), pick up their medications, apply for General Assistance or Social Security income, helping those with housing vouchers find a unit. She added assurance that two CORE people work in Martinez full time.
Malhi asked for details of CORE's outreach to the business community, noting that some business owners told him they have yet to meet any members of the CORE staff.
"Have you sat down with the Chamber (of Commerce) board? Have you sat down with Downtown Martinez? (the latter is a business association also known as Main Street Martinez). Have you gone … up and down Main Street, with all of those businesses?" Malhi asked. "Some folks … are saying, 'I've never met anybody; I haven't seen anybody; I don't know who to call.'
"There's a lack of information."
Sanders responded that she has gone up and down Main Street and into businesses, handing out business cards and describing services, to staff if not business owners. She said she planned to adjust her work schedule in order to reach businesses that aren't open during the day.
Malhi advised talking to the Chamber of Commerce as a liaison to individual businesses. He asked whether CORE reaches out to businesses outside of downtown, such as along the Alhambra Avenue corridor. Sanders responded that CORE does outreach all over the city, citing the Morello Avenue business district near Highway 4 as an example.
"Anywhere there are homeless, we're out there," Sanders said.
Malhi said homelessness is a citywide challenge and that "we need to make sure that we're being holistic in our efforts."
Addressing the issue of CORE working hours, Malhi, noting that there are CORE workers on duty seven days a week from 8 a.m. to midnight, asked: "That eight-hour window overnight, what happens? Somebody calls, are they just, you know, S.O.L.?"
Robbins responded that most people are resting between midnight and 8 a.m., and that by midnight, warming center beds are full. (There are 12 warming center beds in Concord, and another warming center just opened in Richmond, she added).
Malhi turned to White and asked him whether the notion of a relatively quiet midnight-to-8 a.m. window coincides with the Police Department’s experience, to which White replied that there is significantly less activity during those hours.
Pivoting to the notion of "meeting folks where they are," Malhi said one such place would be the Loaves and Fishes food handout on Ferry Street, and that based on what people there told him, there's "room for improvement." There's a strong correlation between food and housing insecurity, Malhi said, so, "my question is, why aren't you there?"
Sanders said CORE has good communications with Loaves and Fishes and that most of the people who go there are already engaged with CORE.
Said Malhi, "My overarching point here tonight is that we have multiple organizations that are operating in this space. They're not talking to each other. I need people to start talking to each other, because you have to share your resources. You all are dealing with challenges, but you need to leverage one another's resources more effectively.
"We need to get out of our silos,” he continued. "And let's start talking." He offered to facilitate the conversations he was recommending.
McKillop lauded CORE's work; complimented its increased communication with the Martinez Police Department; and encouraged open communication with other organizations such as Downtown Martinez & Co. and the Chamber of Commerce as a way to reach out to more businesses.
Zorn asked if there is any shelter in Martinez. The CORE team responded that there is one, a "not-well-advertised" shelter for families with young children in a "confidential space" in Mountain View.
Does Martinez need a warming center or shelter? Zorn asked. Of course, said Robbins, but it doesn't have to be a traditional shelter like the one in Concord. CORE also works with different models such as motel rooms and bridge housing.
Robbins added that many homeless people prefer to stay close to their erstwhile homes. Of the homeless people CORE provided service to in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 42 percent lost their housing in Martinez, and 87 percent have roots in Martinez, she said.
How does the CORE team feel about people who refuse services, Zorn asked.
Robbins responded, "It's the expectation, not the exception," adding that people who have been outside for long periods of time not surprisingly will be resistant to coming inside or engaging in services — thus the importance of trust- and rapport-building.
The need for more housing — especially affordable housing — figured prominently at the Nov. 14 Planning Commission meeting. The city's Housing Element is part of its General Plan and must be updated every eight years. It is supposed to show how the city plans to meet the projected housing need of all segments of the community, Planning Director Michael Cass said in a staff report, available at https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/2279863/Staff_Report_-_Housing_Element_Update.pdf.
Communities' housing needs, broken down by affordability levels, are determined through the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation process (RHNA), overseen by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). RHNA allocated production of 1,345 housing units to Martinez over the next eight years: 551 for people of very low and low income; 221 for moderate income; and 573 for above-moderate income, according to the staff report. Fulfilling the 1,345-unit allocation would require expanding by 510 units Martinez's previously identified capacity of 835 units.
The proposed updated Housing Element, prepared for the city by De Novo Planning Group of El Dorado Hills, identifies six principal goals. In a nutshell they are: diversify housing to meet the needs of all income levels; expand the city's affordable housing stock; improve and preserve existing housing stock; reduce government constraints, where feasible and appropriate, on housing development, maintenance and improvement; promote equal housing opportunities for all residents of all income levels; and promote sustainability by minimizing reliance on natural resources.
The proposed update identifies many housing opportunity sites and "overlays" — districts to be rezoned to accommodate a specific need, in this case to encourage housing — among them the Alhambra Avenue Corridor Overlay and a Community Services Overlay, the latter to be applied to sites with existing religious institutions and community nonprofits.
The following items were produced by Craig Lazzeretti and freelance writer David Scholz
A public health advisory was briefly issued by Contra Costa Health Services on Sunday as a result of a fire at the Martinez Renewable Fuels refinery at 150 Solano Way (not to be confused with the Martinez Refining Co. on Pacheco Boulevard that has been the focus of much attention over the past year). A worker was also reportedly injured by the fire, which was quickly brought under control. Here is a link to a report on the incident by ABC7.
While the refinery issued a “Level 2” Community Warning System alert for the fire, it did not trigger automated text or email messages to residents within Martinez city limits because the refinery, while listing a Martinez address, is more than 1,000 feet from the city’s border (it is actually closer to Concord’s city limits).
In response to an email inquiry by Mayor Brianne Zorn asking for clarity on the protocols for automated CWS alerts in Level 2 incidents, Contra Costa Health Deputy Director Matt Kauffman said:
When an initial notification is made by a facility, CWS registered users within 1000 feet of the facility are automatically notified. This notification area is the initial zone and can be expanded by emergency responders including Contra Costa Health. The message is meant for individuals in the affected area.
CCH understands some community members may want information for hazardous materials incidents even though they are not in the impacted area. In that case, individuals can update their CWS profile to include facility-specific messaging regardless if they are physically located within the impacted area. CCH will work with the CWS team to provide a factsheet to our community regarding how to update their CWS profile to include messaging for specific facilities.
In the same email string, a resident inquired why she was unable to find any notification about the Community Warning System alert on Contra Costa Health’s hazardous materials website on Sunday.
In response, Kaufmann acknowledged that “CCH does not have a place on our website where the public can view historical log of CWS notifications for hazmat-related incidents. We will give this idea some thought and see if we can’t come up with a way to display a log of CWS notifications made to CCH.”
Kaufmann said that once a CWS incident is considered “closed,” associated reports can be found at the following website: https://cchealth.org/hazmat/search-incident.php
The most recent incident listed on that page is a 72-hour report dated July 14 from the Martinez Refining Co.’s July 11 coke dust release.
Kaufmann said in the email that upon responding to the incident, Contra Costa Health determined there was “not an imminent concern” for public health:
CCH reviewed weather data, fence-line air monitoring data and conducted in-person air monitoring in the areas surrounding the refinery. CCH determined there was not an imminent concern for public health in the community surrounding the refinery.
Residents who want to register or update their settings for Community Warning System alerts can do so at https://cwsalerts.com/
Meanwhile, MRC has filed its final report from a June 7 fire water pipe leak that released approximately 11,217 barrels of partially treated wastewater that flowed into a facility storm drain before accumulating in a water-retention area. As a result of the accident, MRC said it will replace process water piping with epoxy-coated piping at locations where needed.
City’s community tree lighting is Saturday
The holiday season festivities the first Saturday after Thanksgiving will culminate with Martinez community tree lighting at 5:30 p.m. at Downtown Martinez Main Street Plaza. The afternoon’s festivities start at 4 and will feature a Snow Globe Photo Booth, character appearances and photos with Grinch and Cindy Lu Who, and ACA holiday music from 5 to 5:30 p.m. Light snow is predicted for Santa. The event is presented by Downtown Martinez & Co. and The Martinez Refining Co.
Look for the next “News You Can Use” feature for paid subscribers, to be posted early next week, with more holiday and community events on the horizon.
Small Business Saturday
The all-day annual event to support local merchants around downtown Martinez is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 25. More information is available at https://downtownmartinez.org/small-business-saturday
I want to take a moment to thank all my readers and subscribers for their support and encouragement with this newsletter over the past 14 months and wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. I can honestly say that in my 30-plus-year journalism career, the opportunity to inform and serve my community through this newsletter has been as gratifying as anything I have ever accomplished professionally (including having a role in winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017). Your support means the world to me and has turned this endeavor into a true labor of love.
As of this writing, Martinez News and Views counts 697 subscribers, including more than 100 who have contributed to it financially through a paid subscription or other donations, allowing me to enlist the help of skilled journalists such as Tom Lochner, the author of today’s lead item, and David Scholz, who compiles the “News You Can Use” roundup of local events (email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in contributing to the newsletter directly). Most posts generate 1,000 or more views. You are proof that local journalism matters, especially when it’s rooted in the community that it serves, and that knowledge is power when it comes to the issues that shape our community. Like you all, I love our city and want to see it grow, thrive and serve the interests and needs of all our residents, from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Thanks again, and Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones!