Inspired by Mountain View's example, Palo Alto may explore a new idea to assist the city's growing population of unhoused residents: a homeless shelter with more than 100 beds on a city-owned site on San Antonio Road.
The city is considering applying for funding in the state's Project Homekey grant program, which is administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development and which allows cities to buy motels, hotels and apartment buildings to provide shelter for homeless individuals. Last fall, Mountain View received more than $14 million in Homekey funding to construct a development with 100 modular units at 2566 Leghorn St., which is able to accommodate up to 124 individuals. Constructed in just months, the development opened in May and was singled out by Gov. Gavin Newsom as a creative solution to addressing the state's homeless problem.
Now, Palo Alto is considering advancing a similar project at the Los Altos Water Treatment Plant, a site at 1237 San Antonio Road that, despite its name, is neither in Los Altos nor is a water treatment plant. For years, the 14.4-acre lot has accommodated various industrial uses on its southern portion. The northernmost 4 acres of the site are in a wetlands conservation area and are effectively off limits for development, while the 6.6 acres just south of the conservation area had once accommodated the treatment plant, though its former treatment ponds have subsequently been reclassified as wetlands.
The area where the homeless shelter could potentially be built is directly south of the 6.6-acre portion. It currently serves as a contractor staging area for the city's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and as a storage yard for GreenWaste, the city's refuse collector.
The proposal by city staff to pursue a Mountain View-style homeless shelter on San Antonio Road is one of several strategies that the council will consider on Aug. 9 to address homelessness. The council also plans to consider creating a Special Enforcement Team in the Palo Alto Police Department, a two-person team that would patrol downtown and other prominent commercial areas and help link unhoused residents with needed services, according to a new staff report. The city has employed such teams since the mid-1990s but eliminated it last year because of funding shortages.
The idea of using the San Antonio Road site to assist the unhoused population isn't exactly new. In recent years, city leaders had explored of using the Los Altos Water Treatment Plant site as a possible location for a "safe parking" program where vehicle dwellers can park overnight. The City Council ultimately chose the site at 2000 Geng Road, which is also near the Baylands, for the city's first safe parking program.
Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Lydia Kou have been leading the charge, urging their colleagues in a 2019 memo to explore more safe parking programs. In April, the council agreed to devote more city resources to addressing homelessness, including increasing its grant allocation to LifeMoves, the nonprofit that operates the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue and that partnered with Mountain View to develop the Leghorn project. Council member Greer Stone, a former member of the Human Relations Commission, said that he had been disappointed for a long time with the amount of money that the city spends on unhoused services.
"We're so fortunate to have so many nonprofit organizations in this community, where we're getting pennies on the dollar for our little investment to the amount that our community gets back from them. ... I think we need to increase our commitment to those organizations by increasing our funding." Stone said.
In rolling out the new programs, the city will lean heavily on partnerships with Santa Clara County and nonprofit partners. Both the county and the nonprofit Move Mountain View, which operates safe parking programs, played critical roles in establishing the Geng Road program. The county also offered a $2.4 million contribution to Mountain View for the Leghorn development.
During Palo Alto's study session on homelessness, Kathryn Kaminski, deputy director for the county's Office of Supportive Housing, said that between 2015 and 2019, the county has doubled the number of supportive housing units, temporary housing spaces and its emergency shelter capacity. Despite the progress, the number of homeless populations has continued to grow.
"What we've seen over the last several years is that for every one person that we house, another two or three become homeless," Kaminski said.
According to the county's Homeless Census and Survey Comprehensive Report, the number of people in north Santa Clara County who experienced homelessness went up from 1,102 in 2017 to 1,621 in 2019, a 62% increase.
The county's 2019 point-of-time count also identified 313 unhoused individuals in Palo Alto, of whom 292 slept in vehicles, tents or on the street.
Philip Dah, director of the Opportunity Center, told the council that demand for shelter space and mortgage assistance has only increased over the pandemic. Dah noted that the only emergency shelters in Palo Alto are Hotel de Zink and the Heart and Home Collaborative, both of which are rotating shelter programs organized by local churches. The Opportunity Center, he said, has a 20-bed shelter that had to reduce its capacity to 10 during the pandemic because of social distancing requirements.
Dah recommended that the city consider a Project Homekey project similar to the one that had since been completed up in Mountain View. In addition to providing shelters with basic needs — most notably, bathrooms — the Leghorn facility connects clients to health care, supportive services and job placement resources. According to the city's announcement, clients are anticipated to stay for between 90 and 120 days, while they "get stabilized and begin on the path to more permanent housing."
"We think that if we move to a more permanent location or something with a longer-term stay, it will address some of the systemic issues that we see in Palo Alto," Dah said.
If the council goes along with the staff proposal, the city would partner with LifeMoves and potentially the Santa Clara County Housing Authority and submit a grant application once the next round of Project Homekey funding becomes available (city staff expect this will happen in September). The city would then move ahead with making the necessary zoning changes to convert the site and further pin down the program's costs and potential funding sources. Under the current estimate, operating the program would cost the city between $2.5 million and $4 million.
While the council has yet to discuss the staff proposal for the San Antonio site, DuBois called the Project Homekey proposal "really exciting" in a recent interview.
"Encampments in parking garages aren't the answer," DuBois said, citing the recent trend of unhoused individuals stationing their tents in a public garage on Bryant Street. "I think there is a gap that Homekey provides an answer to."