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It’s no secret that there are great income disparities in Marin County; in fact, it is among the top three counties in the state where the gap between rich and poor is the most pronounced.

According to this year’s Point in Time (PIT) count of people experiencing homelessness in Marin County, that gap has gotten larger.

The 2022 PIT preliminary report reveals an 8.4 percent increase in homelessness over 2019, from 1,034 people to 1,121. Marin has also seen a 34 percent increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness. The county said last week that the rise in families experiencing homelessness is “of significant concern to county officials.”

There was some good news in the report. The number of homeless veterans has decreased from 99 to 65, or 34 percent. County officials say they have made concentrated efforts in this “key” population.

Gary Naja-Riese, Marin’s Director of Homelessness and Whole Person Care Division, cited previous reductions in homelessness from 2017 to 2019 due to the county’s embracing of a Housing First model, which maintains that giving people who are experiencing chronic mental illness or homelessness (or both) a roof over their head increases their chances of stabilizing and being able to the better tackle their challenges.

Naja-Riese claims that Marin saw a 28 percent decrease in homelessness over those two years prior to the pandemic.

Unlike other counties which are reporting less-than-expected rises in homelessness due to the pandemic, Marin points a finger squarely at COVID for its increase.

Panning the pandemic

In a statement about the county’s numbers released May 16, the header reads, “Latest Homeless Count Reflects Pandemic’s Toll.”

Still, the county says that things could have been a lot worse due to “skyrocketing rents, inflation and a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide pandemic.”

“While we’re disappointed in the increased numbers despite all our efforts, we’re not surprised,” said Board of Supervisors President Katie Rice. “We’re just beginning to recover from a pandemic emergency in which those the least suffered the most.”

Most counties are reporting that they dodged a homelessness bullet pandemic-wise, with expectations of much larger counts not coming to fruition. However, eviction moratoriums and other safeguards put into place in California are coming to an end soon and some individuals and families could see themselves tossed out of their housing this summer, which is the timeframe outlined in Assembly Bill 2179, which extended the moratorium through June 30.

“While we’re disappointed in the increased numbers despite all our efforts, we’re not surprised. We’re just beginning to recover from a pandemic emergency in which those the least suffered the most.”

Katie Rice, Marin County Board of Supervisors

Indeed, Marin County credits funding it received during the pandemic that it says staved off a larger increase in homelessness. One million came from the county general fund, $2.5 million came from the Marin Community Foundation, and over $35 million came from state and federal emergency COVID rental assistance funds, according to the county.

Authorities in the county are now talking about solutions. Since 2020, Marin has received $24.6 million in Project Homekey funds, a state program to shelter those living with chronic homelessness and other issues.

From Homekey to controversy

But Project Homekey faced backlash in Larkspur this year, after supervisors approved the conversion of a former assisting living center for seniors into a housing complex with wrap-around services for chronically mentally ill and homeless individuals. A petition entitled “Save Our Children” was circulated via Change.org to halt the project; it gathered 3,044 signatures.

Dozens of residents also called into Larkspur City Council meetings to express their opposition. Ironically, the county’s only crisis center for people experiencing mental illness already exists across the street from the planned supported housing project.

In addition to Project Homekey sites, Marin has pledged to increase the amount of permanent supported housing units by 10 percent in 2022, with 714 units by the end of the year.

The county said the likely reasons for the rise in homelessness among families is due to pandemic conditions, affordable housing shortages, and “an intentional change in method designed to improve our understanding of this vulnerable population.”

Asked to clarify the comment about the change in method, Senior Homelessness Policy Analyst Carrie Sager said, “For the 2022 PIT count, we made an intentional change in the method we use to count families. While it was partially responsible for making our count higher, we believe it made it more accurate.”

Sager said Marin County will continue to employ this method going forward.