The proposed Project Homekey site at 1251 S. Eliseo Dr. in Larkspur, Calif. (Photo courtesy Marin County Health and Human Services)

Marin County will add up to 50 permanent housing units in the city of Larkspur for homeless residents after the county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to accept a $15.5 million housing grant.

The award from the state’s Homekey program will support the purchase of a former skilled nursing facility at 1251 S. Eliseo Drive that is currently abandoned in Larkspur’s Greenbrae neighborhood.

Once completed, county officials expect to make between 43 and 50 housing units at the project site available to the county’s chronic homeless residents.

The housing complex would also include supportive services like education and job assistance, medical and behavioral health care and assistance in seeking public benefits.

“We can move 43 men and women off the streets and into a serene setting with access to the help they need and a community to individuals and organizations ready to help make it a success,” said Ken Shapiro, the COO and chief assistant director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Roughly $13 million of the grant will be dispersed to the San Francisco-based organization Episcopal Community Services to purchase the property.

The remaining grant funding will subsidize operating expenses for the project, including supportive services for the property’s residents, utilities and necessary maintenance.

The state established the Homekey program in 2020, providing grants to local governments that are then used to purchase old and derelict buildings and convert them into housing for homeless residents.

On the project’s current timeline, ECS is expected to come to an operating agreement with the county in April, at which point it will formally purchase the property.

Construction is estimated to be completed by February 2023, with residents moving into the project’s units in the following 60-90 days, according to county officials.

The board’s consideration whether to accept the grant drew more than 100 public speakers, resulting in a nearly five-hour discussion before the board ultimately voted unanimously to proceed with the project.

While the project’s supporters argued that the county desperately needs more housing, those in opposition suggested that placing homeless residents in suburban Larkspur would make the surrounding area unsafe and could potentially lead to violence and open-air drug use.

Those opposed to the project have collected more than 2,600 signatures via a petition titled “Keep our children safe by stopping the homeless facility next to playground and schools.”

County officials said the project will serve homeless residents even if they struggle with addiction, serious mental illness or have a criminal record.

Housing units at the complex will also not be available to those who are prohibited by probation or parole from living near a park or school, registered sex offenders and people who have been convicted of a violent criminal act in the prior three years.

Those opposing the project also argued that mental health and addiction treatment should be mandatory as a condition of living at the complex.

Ashley Hart McIntyre, a homelessness policy analyst with Marin County HHS, noted that requiring residents to use services like mental health counseling and addiction treatment is not allowed under the state’s Housing First model, which contends that people must have access to stable housing before pursuing health and behavioral improvements.

“Staff are trained to work with clients and build trust and overcome initial hesitancy,” McIntyre told the board. “Nearly all people who reside in permanent supportive housing do choose to engage in services.”

The supervisors argued concerns that the South Eliseo project would jeopardize Larkspur’s safety were largely unfounded, and that the city would not suddenly struggle with the same issues of homelessness as San Francisco, as some public speakers claimed.

Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said she recently toured three permanent supportive housing complexes operated by ECS in San Francisco, and argued they’re clean, safe, well-maintained and residents seemed to be thriving.

“There are not people loitering outside these properties in the doorway,” Moulton-Peters said. “They are in their homes. This is what homeless people want most of all: A place to call their own.”

She added that the South Eliseo complex’s eventual population will likely be “self-selecting,” because potential residents will be required to have the “intention and the wherewithal” to complete the application process.

“The people who live there will have the kind of supportive services they need with the placement to be successful,” Moulton-Peters said. “They will be living in a community and the staff will be looking out for them. These are not isolated individuals living on the streets.”

While the county did not complete its biannual point-in-time county of homeless residents in 2021, the 2019 survey found the county’s homeless population to be 1,034, which county officials expect is likely an undercount.

Supervisor Katie Rice, whose district includes Larkspur, argued the South Eliseo project would not be a panacea for the county’s homeless population, but still framed it as “one more large step forward” in housing some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

“Tackling homelessness and housing the unsheltered in Marin County is not a one-project issues or a one-district issue or a one-supervisor issue,” she said. It’s something that we’re all committed to.”