Redwood City Planning Commission Chair Ernie Schmidt knew when he volunteered to participate in the county-wide homeless census count on Jan. 24 that he would be given an insider's look into homelessness in Redwood City.
However, he said, he was not in any way prepared for what he found.
What he saw that day on Jan. 24 inspired Schmidt to make tackling local homelessness his new personal mission.
Discovery of a 'homeless city'
Local volunteers like Schmidt, new County Supervisor Warren Slocum and many others set out at the break of dawn on Jan. 24 for the County Homeless One-Day Count. In the annual event, volunteers walk the communities and count as many homeless persons as they see.
The counts help the County figure out how much resources are needed for homelessness in the area.
Schmidt said he walked at least three miles on foot that day, to various corners of Redwood City. He said, an officer with the Redwood City Police Department (RCPD) gave volunteers a map of "hot spots" around Redwood City where homeless people are known to gather.
Schmidt said, homeless people tend to wander during the daytime, and find places to camp during the night - thus the need to start the count around 6 a.m.
RCPD had indicated that homeless people often gather on Veterans Boulevard near the Highway 101 overpass. Schmidt said, he often sees homeless people there himself.
"I've seen the people and the shopping carts often when I drive by that spot," he said.
However, he was unprepared for just what he saw.
Schmidt and the other volunteers discovered a well-hidden spot between the back wall of a business and the wall of the overpass. In this alley, they discovered a small "homeless city."
Schmidt said, there was at least 15 tents with as many homeless people camped out in the alley, and he could tell they had been there for some time.
Garbage, shopping carts and the overwhelming smell of urine filled the alley, and an alarming amount of graffiti covered the walls, he said.
See the attached photo Schmidt took that day, of the homeless city in the alley.
Schmidt said, the homeless people were essentially sleeping amid filth, garbage and mud.
"I cried, almost literally, to see people living in such conditions," he said. "The garbage was atrocious, and the smell was so bad. I had to shower three times when I got home that day, just to get rid of the smell."
"We had no idea what we were getting into when we stepped into that alley way."
Volunteers attempted to talk to some of the homeless people living in the encampment, to find out what brought them to have to live there, and determine what could be done to help them.
Schmidt said he was sad to discover that one woman living in the alley had been living with a badly broken ankle for some time.
Staff from InnVision Shelter Network, who were also helping with the count that day, tried to convince the woman to let them help get her medical care and a bed to sleep in.
"She didn't want to go," said Connie Leyva, an outreach worker with InnVision. "She kept saying, 'My belongings are here. If I leave, people will rummage through my stuff and steal it.' So, I came back the next day with someone who would keep an eye on her stuff for her while she came with us."
Leyva said, it's not uncommon for homeless to resist help for such reasons. She said, the key to making a difference is to not give up - to keep coming back and talking to them, and to find out on a personal level what would really help their individual situations.
Leyva said, one thing that makes her good at her job is that she can relate to them on a personal level, because she was once homeless herself. Leyva said, InnVision helped her get back on her feet years ago, and the positive experience inspired her to help others by working with the organization.
"Knowing you've walked a mile in their shoes, it helps them to want to open up to you," she explained.
Schmidt said, it took five days for local authorities like RCPD and Caltrans to clean up the homeless city they discovered that day in the alley by the overpass, and to find resources to help all of the roughly 15 people they found living there that day.
"I was really proud of the RCPD for getting on the ball and getting this done so quickly," he said, walking through the newly-clean alley last week. "It's a remarkable difference, looking at the 'before' and 'after' and how much cleaner it looked just five days after the census count."
See attached photos of what they alley looks like today.
Inspired to make a difference
Schmdit said, helping local homeless is his true "new year's resolution" for 2013.
"Originally, I had made a resolution to eat healthier - but now, this is my resolution. To do whatever I can to help the homeless situation," he said.
"I'm given a great privilege as a Planning Commissioner to witness the wonderful growth in Redwood City, and to help my city," he said. "But, it's as a community member that I feel I can help make a difference in these people's lives."
Schmidt said, immediately after participating in the One-Day Count, he signed up to be a volunteer with InnVision Shelter Network, in whatever capacity they can use him.
Since then, his personal mission has been to "knock on as many doors as he can" within the City's and County's resources to try and address the problems and intricacies of local homelessness.
One way he hopes to do so is to try and find partnerships with local businesses to help provide food and clothing for homeless people, help getting job interviews and coaching them on finding work, and more.
He said, most of all, the experience helped him realize that homelessness is not just the responsibility of the Cities.
"Homelessness is not a City issue - it's really a community issue. It really takes the involvement of the community to get these people help," he said. "That's how we can end homelessness - as a community."
What can Redwood City do?
That doesn't mean there aren't some things the Cities can do to help. Schmidt said, the Redwood City Planning Commission is currently working on identifying a certain number of acres within the city that can be zoned to allow for more emergency shelters.
There are currently five shelters in Redwood City - but Schmidt said, given the numbers they saw during the homeless census count last month, it's obvious five is not enough.
The state of California requires, under government code, the identification of a zone or zones where emergency shelters are allowed as a permitted use without a conditional use or other discretionary permit. The minimum required is at least 12 acres, and the total number of acres is determined through a specific formula that takes into account data such as the homeless census count.
The Planning Commission has been tackling the requirement lately and, during last week's commission meeting, actually identified around 60 acres that could potentially serve as these "emergency shelter/combined districts."
"One of the reasons we looked beyond the 12 acres is to spread it out so it's not so concentrated," explained City Planning Manager Blake Lyon. "For example, the districts could be least 300 feet away from away each other."
The Planning Commission will continue looking at the issue and will soon be making recommendations to the City Council.
How anyone can help
Schmidt and Leyva said, anyone who is inspired to help the problem of local homelessness can contact InnVision Shelter Network and volunteer.
Volunteer opportunities include tutoring children in the Children's Program, teaching life skills to homeless people working to become self-sufficient, sorting donations at the shelters, assisting office staff, and more.
Visit www.shelternetwork.org for more information or to volunteer or make a donation.
What do you think of the issue of homelessness in Redwood City and San Mateo County? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
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