Tattered orange fencing is falling down along the border of what was formerly a homeless encampment behind Strawflower Village near Pilarcitos Creek. Farther up the road, under the Highway 1 overpass, are several makeshift shelters where people are now residing as a result of being moved from the previous encampment.
About a year after Half Moon Bay City Council set out to address the city’s homeless problem, there remains a lot more work to be done.
“So, they successfully closed the encampment, however they did not resolve the homelessness,” said Eric DeBode, executive director of Abundant Grace Coastside Worker. DeBode is a longtime advocate for the area’s homeless population. “To resolve homelessness, you need housing.”
The council and city staff recognized something had to be done because the encampment by the shopping center was located in an environmentally sensitive area, according to Deputy City Manager Matthew Chidester.
Because people were living in the vegetation behind the shopping center, garbage and compacted soil were preventing native plants from growing in the area.
“It put the city at legal risk and so the city had to do something to close it,” Chidester said.
In May 2018, the encampment was closed following a 120-day notice given to people living along the creek. Within three weeks Tucker Construction cleaned up the trash. City staff then began preparing for an environmental remediation plan. The project includes trimming native plants along the creek, with the intent to place them in a nursery to germinate until they can be replanted in a few months.
Chidester estimates the entire cost of responding to the homeless encampments so far to be about $390,000. The city has applied for grants that could cover $220,000 of the project costs. Most of the work should be complete by 2020, with the site to be monitored for three years.
As part of the city’s effort to dismantle the encampment behind the shopping center, service providers, including LifeMoves, came to Half Moon Bay to connect people with available resources in the county. Additionally, the city launched an employment program, run by DeBode, that gives homeless residents paid work for a few hours a day cleaning up trash at local parks, beaches and trails.
“This was deemed the best practice. Once it is established the encampment has to be moved because of an environmental, health or other issue,” Chidester said. “We took the long view. We gave them advanced notice and brought service providers from the county, because the goal is to house every single person. We did not have an expectation to house every person, but it is our goal.”
For Donna, who chose not to give her last name, the city’s response was inadequate. She moved from the former encampment to her new camp, beside the Highway 1 overpass, with her dogs.
“Moving out behind Safeway was like a nail in our coffin,” she said. She mentioned she was appreciative of the work program run by DeBode and would like to see the city provide a dumpster and a bathroom and shower for people living in other encampments. Since she wants to keep her animals, she said she did not want to go to a shelter on the other side of the county.
For several years, DeBode and other likeminded people, attempted to come up with a possible housing solution for the homeless on the Coastside, but nothing has come to fruition. Half Moon Bay is limited in its ability to provide a site for a shelter based on current zoning requirements, according to Chidester.
“We are constrained. It would have to be on a city-, school- or church-owned lot,” Chidester said.
“Housing is the priority,” DeBode said. “The work program is good and it meets some needs, but housing is the overarching goal and that is going to require some deep commitments from the city, the county and developers who do not do it for the money but do it because it is the right thing to do.”
Another service provider, Coastside Hope, also continues to work with the homeless on the coast, by providing a food pantry and helping people link to services.
“It is a very difficult problem to solve,” said Coastside Hope Community Development Director Keith Terry. “I think the city has done an admirable job and everything they can do that would be expected for them as a city.”
Terry mentioned he is hopeful the city’s $2 million in affordable housing funds will be used to help address a critical need in the city. City Council, with input from staff, will ultimately determine how those funds are spent.
“We have mostly people here who are chronically homeless and may have multiple issues in their lives. These are folks with complex histories and there is not a single solution,” Chidester said.
The city intends to deal with new encampments on an on-going basis, and staff says if they fall on private property or under other jurisdictions, the city will work with its partners to take the most compassionate approach.
“If they are on environmentally sensitive areas, we have to act quickly,” Chidester said.
City staff will also look into various state funding packages that could potentially be used to assist homeless people in Half Moon Bay.
“Closing the encampment itself was successful, but the solution to homelessness is to continue to work with the county and our nonprofits,” Chidester said. “We want to seek ways to be as compassionate as possible. We also recognize in some instances we are not always best positioned with the resources we have and so we rely on our other partners in the county.”