Martinez is a small town by Bay Area standards, but it is at the crossroads of Contra Costa County’s mental health and criminal justice systems and the special challenges they create for efforts to combat homelessness.
When someone gets booked into the Martinez Detention Facility, or taken to one of the medical facilities serving psychiatric patients, they typically get released in downtown Martinez. Sometimes it’s at odd hours, when public transit may not be available to get them home.
The population of unsheltered residents who sleep somewhere in Martinez is relatively small at 117, according to the 2018 Point in Time Count, but its impacts can appear more pronounced due to the presence of homeless or mentally ill people from all over the county.
That was just one of the takeaways from a recent forum convened by the city’s vice mayor, Noralea Gipner, to present charitable and governmental efforts underway to address issues surrounding homelessness in Contra Costa and answer questions from the public.
The May 16 event was well attended, with dozens of people in the audience, and presentations on a half-dozen programs working to feed, house and care for the area’s unsheltered residents.
Police Chief Manjit Sappal said his officers face pressure from the public to arrest problem homeless individuals in many cases, but Martinez can’t always address these issues through the criminal justice system.
“For us it’s more complicated because the jail is a couple blocks down the road,” Sappal said. “They go to jail, they get released, then we deal with them over and over again.” It’s not just the jail, however.
The A.F. Bray Courthouse at 1020 Ward St. brings homeless individuals involved in the criminal justice system downtown and with the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center at 2500 Alhambra Ave., people experiencing a mental health crisis frequently end up wandering the streets of Martinez when released.
That is where Community Resource Officer Rodney Brinser comes in. When someone gets stuck in Martinez after being released from jail or discharged from a psychiatric unit, he can help get them a ticket home. “We sent someone to Hawaii,” Brinser said. “Not on holiday.”
Brinser acknowledged that this can be an expensive approach to addressing people’s personal problems, but it is cheaper than arresting them. “Sometimes we have to arrest or give tickets, but that’s not our main goal,” Brinser said.
Other times all it takes is a new pair of shoes or some luggage to help people carry their belongings to someplace else.
“I want people to look a little bit better, I want them to feel better,” Brinser said. “You got one flip flop, you’re missing the other flip flop, I’m gonna get you some shoes.”
Part of Brinser’s role is to help connect individuals with the health and housing services that are available to the homeless through the county or other agencies, and renting a hotel room is one option for keeping track of them long enough for those appointments.
There are at least two groups, including Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa at 835 Ferry St., that offer free meals to the homeless on a regular basis. Brinser noticed that calls for service involving petty theft dropped in the surrounding area when people were getting fed.
Sometimes resources have more of an impact than citations or arrests, and they can come from a variety of organizations. The Bay Church offers free laundry service for the homeless once a month, and their volunteers hope to debut a four-stall shower trailer later this year.
Jaime Jenett, with Contra Costa Health, Housing and Homeless Services and Michael Fischer, program manager with the county’s Coordinated Outreach Referral and Engagement team, presented observations and data gathered through their work with the homeless community in Martinez. The C.O.R.E. team contacted more than 1,000 homeless people in Martinez between June 2018 and March of this year.
About 36 percent of them said they stayed in Martinez because of family ties or similar connections in the community. Roughly 41 percent identified as having problems with substance abuse, and 33 percent reported mental health issues.
The homeless in Martinez find the biggest barrier to housing is income. Median rent in the Bay Area is $2,300 a month, according to Jenett, but renters would need to make more than four times the minimum wage to afford that.
And the elderly, especially those living on a fixed income, are particularly vulnerable.
“If the rent goes up $200 a month, you’re out of luck,” Jenett said. “What that means is that a lot of folks are gonna be on the street.” There are things the public can do to help, but the primary solution to homelessness is housing.
“Is there anybody in here who’s a landlord?” Jenett said, encouraging property owners to make rooms and rental units available to someone currently experiencing homelessness. “That’s something you could do that’s a tangible thing.”
The meeting concluded with a question and answer segment during which several members of the audience were critical of the city’s efforts, or lack thereof, depending.
Some complained that when they’ve tried to help by calling the police or other agencies, the resources available to respond have often been inadequate to address the situation that prompted the call, and the authorities in the room acknowledged that the demand for these services often exceeds their availability.
There were several solutions put forward by the community, including a safe parking area where people living in vehicles could sleep at night as well as a tiny home village.
One woman who said she is currently homeless invited everyone in attendance to experience homelessness with her for the evening, though no one immediately took her up on the offer.