San Bernardino Declares Pervasive Homelessness Has It in A State Of Emergency

The San Bernardino City Council this week declared the city it oversees to be in a state of emergency based on the housing and homelessness crisis that has beset it.
Making the declaration furthered the council’s administrative authority to implement a series of measures to meet the dire consequences of homelessness among what has exceeded half of one percent the city’s population.
The 220,101-population city at present has some 1,350 residents who are officially homeless.
After hearing a staff report on the matter that was presented by Cassandra Searcy, who was hired nearly seven months ago as the city’s deputy director of housing and homelessness, the council voted to expedite the develop of shelters and interim housing, work with landlords to rent available vacant apartments to those who are unhoused and speed up the permitting processes on new housing construction.
Searcy gave an overview of efforts the city has made generally over the past fifteen years and specifically more recently in dealing with the crisis. She said that in some measure, “the city has done things right.”
According to Searcy, “Homelessness is a national issue. It is negatively impacting the city it is true, but it’s not only affecting the unhoused population, it’s also affecting those who are housed. It’s affecting our neighbors. It’s affecting the community. It’s affecting everyone. For years, the city has partnered with multiple service agencies to provide shelter to provide care and assistance, but unfortunately, with those efforts, it doesn’t really seem to be having an impact. So, we need to shift gears and we need to identify what are the gaps and what programs and services do we need to put in place. It is true that housing ends homelessness, but we can’t negate the fact that we still need to have some level of interim housing and shelters to help people stabilize so they can successfully transition into permanent housing.”According to Searcy, San Bernardino is host to 40 percent of the entire county’s homeless population and the city has seen a 175 percent increase in homelessness since 2017. She said the number of unsheltered individuals in the city had more than quadrupled since 2017, such that the city’s homeless shelters are now near or at full capacity. Searcy said exacerbating the problem is the inadequate amount of affordable housing.
In 2017, Searcy said, there were 491 homeless in the city. In 2022, that number had risen to 1,350.
In 2017 there were 222 people living in places that were defined as inhabitable for humans, such as streets, sidewalks, alleyways and cars. “In 2022 that number had jumped to 992,” Searcy said.
Referencing short term measures and laws put in place to keep people from being thrown out on the streets during the COVID pandemic, Searcy noted, “The eviction protection resources ended on March 31, 2022. COVID-19 rent and utility bill relief will end February 28, 2023.”
Moreover, Searcy said, “We just had a point-in-time count [of the homeless within the city] January 26. Do not be surprised if those numbers increase further from last year. We do not have a grip on this situation.”
The city is inundated with individuals with literally no place to go, Searcy said.
“There’s two main concerns in our city,” she said. “Number one, we are experiencing a shelter crisis. Point blank, we simply do not have enough adequate shelters to address the need. That is number one. Number two is due to years of neglect, the loss of federal funding, the dismantling of the redevelopment agency, we do not have a significant amount of funds to increase affordable housing. As a result, the entire nation is suffering.”
The city was scrambling to get a handle on things, Searcy said. “I’ve been here almost seven months and I can tell you we have multiple projects moving forward.”
The city hired her into the newly created position of deputy director for housing and homelessness, she said, and in October had allowed her to hire a homeless services coordinator, which has been filled with Ashley Escobel, whom Searcy characterized as passionate and dedicated about meeting the homelessness issue head on.
Furthermore, Searcy said, the city council on December 7, 2022 approved using over $25 million in American Rescue Act Plan of 2021 funds to address homelessness.
Of that, $5 million will go toward Homekey Partnerships with Lutheran Social Services to create 170 total non-congregate beds to help men who are homeless and help men with children.
Searcy did not define the term “non-congregate.”
Also appropriated was $900,000 toward a Homekey partnership with San Bernardino Valley College to create upwards of 60 units to house homeless students.
The city has also committed $12 million toward the development of a 200-bed navigation center, which Searcy said will be a “low barrier” and “pet friendly” facility, meaning, essentially, that it will not turn individuals away because of problematic issues they embody or possess, such as being drug addicted or having dogs or cats.
The navigation center, to be built on the campus of the former School of Hope located at 796 East Sixth Street, is to provide on-site services and interim housing. The site consists of approximately 2.5 acres, a portion of which is to provide non-congregate housing units consisting of prefabricated modular structures. The existing building will offer services to include case management, housing placement and housing management, substance abuse counseling, mental health services, job training and placement, mailbox services and family reunification.
The city council earmarked $4.5 million to go toward operations of the navigational center over three years once it is in place.
Another $1.5 million American Rescue Act Plan of 2021 funds will go for a homeless outreach program.
In addition, the city has hired 12 public works employees who will spend a considerable amount of their time cleaning up homeless encampments. Already, that team has performed 1,143 cleanups at 603 locations, Searcy said.
“We are trying to transition from criminalization [of those living on the streets],” Searcy said. “We understand that it’s not a crime to be homeless. We want to restore a sense of balance to our community but at the same time we want to help our vulnerable residents.”
The city is further committed through the declaration to encouraging the construction and development of housing both permanent and temporary.
City Planner Dave Murray said his division was preparing for the city council’s approval “an optional building code appendix.” He said that at present “The development code allows emergency shelters by right in five pre-defined areas that were approved by [the] city council back in 2010 to meet state law. State law says in your development code you have to define very specific locations where emergency shelters are permitted by right. Those areas are spread throughout the city. They cover private properties that are generally undeveloped or at the time in 2010 were undeveloped. That was the decision back then.”
Moving forward, Murray said, “There is an opportunity to identify either more sites or open it up for any site in very specific zones. We’re going to take a look at where staff thinks that makes sense and we’ll be bringing that back to you for your consideration at a future council meeting. The development code also allows for emergency shelters in other areas of the city, not by right but with the granting of a conditional use permit, which would be reviewed and approved by the planning commission. Maybe we will be looking at other areas of the city where we want to allow emergency shelters either by right or with a conditional use permit. We will also be looking at, perhaps, opportunities for streamlining emergency shelters through an administrative process rather than an elevated process through the planning commission.”
His department will rewrite the city’s building code to make accommodations to allow new construction and conversion of existing structures that can serve to house the homeless.
“We’ll bring that forward to you for your consideration,” Murray told the city council. “Initially we are looking at additional zones which is our residential high [density zone], which is one of our multi-family zones, the commercial office zone and our commercial general [zone], which would be most of our commercial retail corridors. We’re looking at conditional use permits for emergency shelters in those zones and then perhaps locations in our industrial light and public facility zones which could allow shelters by right.”
Ongoing, according to Searcy, are seven new homeless-related projects in the city.
In San Bernardino last year, of the 1,350 homeless that were officially tallied, 992 were unsheltered, with 358 others either sheltered or in transitional housing.
On the documentation provided for Wednesday night’s meeting, there were said to be 253 shelter beds within city limits. That did not include some beds at a place called Mary’s Village, a shelter for men. Searcy did not give a clear explanation as to why the beds at Mary’s Village were not included in the tally.
Part of the strategy approved by the council on Wednesday night includes the creation of a homelessness task force, to include police department personnel, and employees from the city’s code enforcement, public works, parks and recreation, and the city’s community, housing and economic development departments.
“It will take a lot of people, a lot of time, a lot of money, groundwork and volunteers, all of us coming together to make sure we can do whatever possible to make sure we don’t continue to add to the homelessness,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin.
In response to questions by Calvin and Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, Searcy said that the living standards in shelters would be maintained not just by the city’s codes and inspections but by the licensing that shelter operators would get from the State of California.
Calvin’s and Ibarra’s questions went to the degree to which the city would have to suspend or should suspend its land use standards by approving emergency sheltering and permitting and rezoning certain areas for that purpose.
Searcy indicated the city would avoid seeing those standards eroded by operating or controlling the shelters rather than permitting what might be well-intentioned individuals and private entities from operating shelters that run renegade and go “rogue.”
“We want to make sure that if you are unhoused or homeless, wherever you go, you are staying in a safe abode,” Searcy said. She said the city needed to comply with state mandates of monitoring the facilities and who was in them, and for that reason would have a hand in either running or partnering in the running of all homeless shelters in the city.
“You [a city resident or landowner] will not be able to open up a facility in your home or backyard,” Searcy said. “At this point the city has the option of using city-owned sites, city owned land. This is something staff is strongly leaning toward because it allows the city to have site control. The minute you allow individuals to use their own private property, you kind of take away that ability to provide that level of oversight and governance that you need.”
In response to a question by Ibarra, Searcy said the city would not, because of fire and other safety hazard issues, want to utilize so-called pallet shelters, which can be constructed very rapidly.
“They are quick, they’re inexpensive. but they are also dangerous,” Searcy said.
She said the city wanted to make sure that what is built has adequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning, “so people are not sitting in a hotbox or a shed. We’re looking closely to make sure we choose the best options.”
Ibarra said that in addition to providing housing for those now living on the street, she wanted the program to show more emphasis on job training for those being housed.
Stating, “This conversation is long overdue,” Councilman Juan Figueroa, said he believed that society was at last turning a corner on being able to deal straightforwardly with what he considered was one of the several causes of the homeless crisis, that being the relative mental health/illness and cognitive ability of those who find themselves out on the streets. “I look at homelessness as a result of multiple factors,” he said, including the onset of mental deterioration in the relatively young which when manifested among the older generation is seen as senility. With “senile degeneration” of the aged, Figueroa said, society seems to “recognize these individuals no longer have the capacity to care for themselves.” The same should be done for those who are not aged but are still on the ropes mentally, financially, socially and situationally, he opined. “We need to have some type of social defibrillator to shock us back into compassion,” he said.
“This is a very important issue,” said Councilman Fred Shorett. “We are all dealing with this on a daily basis one way or another. I believe that besides crime, homelessness is the number one issue or concern within our population, and we want to see these people taken care of and off the street.”
According to Searcy, “Separate and apart from declaring a local emergency, the city should declare a shelter crisis per Government Code Section 8698 et sequitur. Declaration of a shelter crisis means duly proclaimed existence of a homeless crisis in which a significant number of persons are without the ability to obtain shelter, resulting to a threat to their health and safety. No individual or household shall be denied emergency shelter because of their inability to pay. Emergency shelters shall be occupied only by homeless persons unable to pay for housing. Facilities occupied by individuals who pay for their housing shall not be permitted as an emergency shelter, also referred to as a homeless shelter, a homeless facility or a social service center with a residential component.”
The city council made that declaration, unanimously.
Practically what the declaration will do is effective February 1, 2003 through February 1, 2004, the city will adopt streamlined zoning regulations, allow permanent or temporary structures to be used for emergency housing and expand interim, temporary and permanent housing options.
-Mark Gutglueck

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