In San Rafael, an annual holiday event offers homeless residents a reprieve from stricter encampment rules

Roughly 100 people collected hot meals and warm clothes at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael on Friday, as one of the few comprehensive anti-poverty nonprofits in Marin County hosted its 20th holiday dinner in the midst of an evolving pandemic.

The annual event came amid a continuing debate over what to do about the increasing number of people living in encampments and cars in an affluent part of the Bay Area where the median price for a single-family house is $1.7 million.

“The pandemic is not over, and people are still experiencing challenges,” said Mark Shotwell, executive director of the Ritter Center, which hosted the Dec. 17 dinner and provides housing, rental and medical assistance to people experiencing homelessness. “We don’t want to look back at this time period to see that a bunch more folks have fallen into homelessness.”

There were already signs that may be happening.

According to a survey Marin County conducted this past February, the number of people living in vans, cars, trucks and other vehicles jumped 91% in two years, from 254 people in 2019 to 486 people this year.

2019 was the last year Marin and other Bay Area counties were able to conduct bi-annual homelessness surveys required by the federal government, called point-in-time counts because they typically take place over a short period of time and offer snapshots of the number of homeless people in a community.

Marin County’s 2019 survey identified more than 1,000 people in shelters and living outdoors, a 7% decline from 2017. The 2021 survey was canceled because of the pandemic.

Cheri Graham is someone who lost her housing in between homeless counts. Standing in line to pick up a chicken banh mi sandwich, macaroni salad and steaming mushroom barley soup, Graham said she’d been homeless for almost two years following a job loss and worsening health issues.

“Some people think events like this are for show, that it’s a one-off thing,” she told The Chronicle. “But to me it shows that there are people who care for you. This is also a good way for service providers to find people who need help, like me.”

The Ritter Center is where Gary “Pops” McFadden found his way back indoors nine years ago.

McFadden said he was laid off in 2004. He moved out of his place around the same time because he and his roommate weren’t getting along, he said. He ended up spending the next eight years sleeping in his car.

“That was it,” he said. “I became homeless at that moment.”

A divorced father of three, McFadden said he was fortunate to have a working vehicle and some form of employment, sometimes multiple jobs at once, but they were never enough to a secure an apartment lease. The Ritter Center became a place for him to do laundry and take showers. In 2012, a case manager there helped him find housing he can afford on his income, he said.

While the 72-year-old McFadden has been housed ever since, the county he resides in is falling short of affordable housing targets, with the Association of Bay Area Governments saying a year ago that Marin needs 3,800 new units by the end of the decade — far more than the 180 units the county has planned.

“We have not developed a lot of low-income housing and that’s something city councils are wrestling with today,” Ken Shapiro, chief assistant director of Marin County’s Health & Human Services agency, told the San Rafael City Council on Monday.

In lieu of affordable housing options, local officials have been lobbying apartment landlords to accept more housing vouchers, a process Shapiro described as “slow, lengthy and difficult.”

“And it’s ultimately not going to solve homelessness,” he said. “The only way we’ll achieve that is if we develop housing.”

Shapiro addressed council members after they received a progress report from San Rafael’s police chief about the city’s response to homelessness. It was the first update since the summer, when the city and Caltrans evicted a massive encampment under Highway 101 and created a sanctioned lot under a freeway overpass between Fifth and Mission streets, where camping equipment, portable restrooms, 24-hour security and case management are provided.

Around the same time, the City Council approved new restrictions on where encampments can exist, prompting critics to say the city was making it easier to arrest homeless people who didn’t or couldn’t relocate to the designated area.

On Monday, San Rafael police Chief David Spiller told council members that 36 people were staying in the city’s temporary “service support area,” with another 16 people waiting to get in.

Gary Naja-Riese, the director of Marin County’s homelessness division, recognized that “many, many unhoused folks” exist outside of that sanctioned space.

“Although encampments can be incredibly visible for the community, and sometimes heartbreaking to see, we need to remember that there is a larger world of unhoused folks out there,” he said during the council meeting.

Like other municipalities, Marin County and its cities are looking to the state’s $2.75 billion Project Homekey to help them convert hotels into permanent housing for homeless residents over the next two years. In October, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to apply for up to $16 million to purchase a building in Larkspur, which would add 43 such units.

The county currently has 629 permanent supportive housing units for people exiting chronic homelessness, and placed 116 people into those units in the past year.

San Rafael has 40 hotel room beds through Project Roomkey, a state-reimbursement program to expand temporary housing during the pandemic, through at least January.

That’s still not enough to shelter everyone who needs it, homeless advocates say, especially as another winter storm arrives.

“Living on the streets can kill you,” Robbie Powelson, president of the Marin County Homeless Union, said in a phone interview.

The 27-year-old said he was “precariously housed” at the moment.

“I’ve got my parents’ house, my friends’ couch but so many of us can slip over (onto the streets) any day,” he said. “More needs to be done.”

Shwanika Narayan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @shwanika Instagram: @shwanika