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

Residents of Larkspur in Marin County have filed writ of mandate to halt an approved affordable housing complex for chronically homeless individuals through Project Homekey.

The group, The South Eliseo Neighborhood Alliance, claims that the county erred when it exempted CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) from its decision.

The writ, filed on March 23 and which also names Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, cites the “significant” impacts on traffic, air and soil quality, as well as the noise, floodplain and wetland impacts it would have on the parcel, located at 1251 Eliseo Drive. The address is a former skilled nursing facility.

The county first began talks about turning the site into a Project Homekey site in September of last year. Project Homekey is a state program that ascribes to the “housing first” philosophy that people living with chronic homelessness and mental illness should have roofs over their heads to better stabilize their lives so that they can tackle their other issues.

In October of 2021, the Eliseo Drive location was declared exempt from CEQA by the Community Development Agency of Marin.

In February, the Marin Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a grant award from Project Homekey in the amount of $15,497,200 to acquire and develop the Eliseo site. According to the writ, 122 people expressed opposition to the plan at the meeting, with 70 in favor.

On Feb. 8, The Larkspur City Council proposed writing a letter to the supervisors with the community’s concerns and it was signed by the mayor. The letter was in response to the 61 residents who weighed in on the idea before the council, with 48 opposing the Project Homekey site and 13 in favor of it.

A Change.org petition opposing the project was also circulated entitled “Keep Our Children Safe By Stopping the Homeless Facility Next to Playground and Schools,” which received 2,808 signatures.

Greenbrae resident Kevin Carroll was among the supporters of the Project Homekey site, which he notes is already directly across from the county’s only crisis center for people experiencing mental illness. Carroll has a son with schizophrenia who has been chronically homeless for years, he said. Carroll said that though his son is a native of Marin County, there has never been any meaningful support or services for his complex condition.

Currently, he said his son lives in a park blocks from the home he grew up in and the elementary school that he attended.

“He’s there because that’s the last time he felt normal in a space,” said Carroll. “He’s now 40 years old. So he’s been involved in the system for 30 years and it’s very challenging.”

Carroll said that in his opinion, California has not done enough to support people with mental illness after then-Governor Ronald Reagan deinstitutionalized people living in state hospitals with mental illnesses or disabilities in the 1960s. Carroll has another son with a developmental disability, who he says has vastly more state supports, as well as civil and housing rights guaranteed through the Lanterman Act.

Carroll said he understands the arguments on both sides of the Project Homekey site issue, but says that until Marin takes steps such as providing housing for people, people experiencing homelessness will continue to tax the time and money of police and other agencies.

Carroll said his son has repeatedly gotten housing vouchers but that no landlords in Marin have wanted to rent to someone in his condition or through Section 8. As a result, he said, the county has had to step up and that’s what the Project Homekey site is all about.

“It’s very difficult here in Marin County,” he said. “There’s a very low vacancy rate to begin with. It’s difficult if you’re a landlord and you have a choice between someone with an excellent credit rating or a Section 8 voucher. Unfortunately, a lot of landlords are going to go with the person with the excellent credit rating and not take the voucher. That’s just the reality.”

Residents who spoke up against the Project Homekey site at the February Larkspur Council meeting were largely parents who feared for their children’s safety.

“They have the same services in San Francisco,” said Greenbrae resident Steven Chesley on behalf of he and his wife. “They are out doing drugs and having sex in the street. We are definitely opposed to this project.”

Larkspur resident James Holmes described the project as a “quasi-asylum for the insane, addicted and convicted.”

Randy Collins of Larkspur questioned the message it would send.

“I don’t need experts to tell me this is a bad idea,” he said. “I would never raise my kids and say, no matter what you do, no matter what crimes you commit, what drugs you take, how you behave, no matter what you do I will house you and feed you.”

On the South Eliseo Neighborhood Alliance website, the group says the project was “rushed” in order to secure state funding.

“By unlawfully applying the (CEQA) exemption, they circumvented environmental protections such as diligently searching for alternative methods of achieving their goals,” it reads. “The County also ignored the public comment process where the majority of commenters voiced opposition to the project. Had the County been more receptive to public input, they may have found other solutions.”

The Project Roomkey site on Eliseo Drive will house between 43 and 50 people who have experienced chronic homelessness. It is set to move forward within a year. According to Gary Naja-Riese, director of homelessness and whole person care for Marin County, the complex will have 24/7 staff presence, including on-site property management. There will also be on-site case management and clinical services, primarily during regular business hours. A Community Safety Services Team (CSST) will serve as a community liaison to prevent and de-escalate any issues. Case management will consist of health, behavioral health, counseling, benefits advocacy, financial literacy, and food. The staff to client ratio will be 1:17.