The Vendome & Housing Outreach Team (HOT) Program
The Vendome together with the Housing Outreach Team Program offer permanent supportive housing, multi-disciplinary outreach and ongoing case management for chronically homeless adults, dramatically reducing police contacts and emergency responses while improving vitality of Downtown San Mateo.
City: San Mateo
Ending homelessness takes a community, and ending chronic homelessness takes patience and perseverance.
For years the City of San Mateo faced a difficult challenge of dealing with a core group of chronically homeless individuals in its Downtown retail district. After years of living on the streets, many of these individuals had a wide array of issues resulting in frequent contact with emergency services that typically did not result in positive outcomes. Merchants and visitors to Downtown San Mateo faced the daily challenge of chronically homeless individuals sheltering themselves or loitering in business doorways, public parking garages, and the train station and nearby tunnels, or blocking pedestrian walkways their belongings. Panhandling or other inappropriate behavior, often due to public drunkenness or other mental health issues would disturb merchants and customers while creating health and safety concerns for the public. This issue impacted Downtown merchants and visitors by creating both the perception and reality of an unwelcoming business or community environment. Although the San Mateo Police Department had invested significant resources in working to find solutions, merchants and residents were frustrated with this seemingly unsolvable problem.
In addition to the challenges in Downtown San Mateo, studies have shown chronic homelessness to create a burden on local governmental and nonprofit services both socially and economically. Many of these individuals are addicted to alcohol or drugs and have co-occurring psychiatric disorders, which tends to make them difficult to engage and distrustful of social service providers. As a result, most have had previous negative experiences and difficulty in following program criteria with established homeless shelters or treatment programs. With chronic use of emergency room visits, psychiatric emergency services, detoxification services and high recidivism rates at jails, chronically homeless individuals have been a drain on already stressed resources.
In 2005, the County of San Mateo began developing its HOPE, Housing Our People Effectively, 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. As part of this effort, stakeholders from throughout the County focused on how to help homeless people move into housing. Key stakeholders from San Mateo City Council, Police and Community Development Departments, the County’s Human Services Agency, Behavior Health and Recovery Services, and Department of Housing, core nonprofit service providers St. Vincent de Paul and Samaritan House and the merchant’s Downtown San Mateo Association (DSMA), worked to develop and implement a pilot Housing Outreach Team (HOT) program in Downtown San Mateo that could then be replicated throughout the County. After reviewing several successful “Housing First” programs throughout the country, this workgroup developed a model for San Mateo County that would work collaboratively with local systems and resources. The HOT pilot program became the first HOPE initiative implemented in July 2006.
The HOT Program first inventoried the existing local resources and formed a multi-disciplinary outreach team with specialists in such areas as mental health, substance abuse, health, etc. to address the complex and co-occurring problems often facing these individuals. Earlier, less successful approaches to chronic homelessness required individuals to participate in a variety of supportive and recovery services before moving to housing. The “Housing First” concept is to move homeless individuals into permanent housing without any preconditions. Then using the housing as a foundation, supportive services are gradually provided to improve their mental health, physical health or substance abuse cessation while helping them to gain skills, stable income and generally improve their quality of life. This has required the local commitment, support and involvement of the police department who has the most contact with the homeless on the street. The strong support and leadership of San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer and the invaluable resource of the Downtown Officer Robert Anderson have been critical to success of the HOT program. Officer Anderson is the unique individual who has both the trust and respect of the community and Downtown merchants as well as those chronically homeless individuals who make Downtown their home. He and other HOT team members utilized the “carrot” of permanent housing, not an emergency shelter. By focusing on “harm reduction”, individuals were housed first regardless of sobriety and then provided services focused on building trust and motivation toward health and recovery with ongoing case management.
An essential piece to the success of this program is access to permanent housing for the residents. A critical lesson learned during the early stages of the program was to ensure there was housing available prior to initiating outreach. Since San Mateo is located in a high cost housing market, finding affordable housing opportunities was a primary task for the City of San Mateo’s Neighborhood Improvement & Housing (NIH) Division. The HOT program had some early success with housing vouchers from the San Mateo County Housing Authority for a few individuals, but it was determined that it would be more efficient to find more congregated units to provide housing and onsite services in one complex near the community and existing services these people are familiar with.
The Vendome Hotel, in San Mateo’s downtown, was identified as a potential property for this use. Although not a significant historical structure, this hotel had originally been built in 1896 and for the last several decades operated as single room occupancy housing for persons with extremely low incomes. At first the City’s interest in the property was to negotiate a master lease, but then the owner decided to sell the hotel. Responding quickly to the opportunity, the Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Mateo negotiated the purchase of the property in March 2006 and began planning for the necessary rehabilitation and code upgrades. The building was dilapidated and extremely run down and rehabilitation of the property turned out to be far more extensive than originally anticipated.
Shelter Network of San Mateo County has a strong reputation for being a successful homeless shelter provider for families and individuals throughout the County. The City negotiated an operating agreement with Shelter Network to act as property managers and service coordination providers at the Vendome Hotel, both during the planning and rehabilitation, and upon project completion. With strong support from the community, the project was completed, sixteen tenants moved in to their new homes and The Vendome permanent supportive housing was fully occupied on the grand re-opening held May 12, 2009.
Completion of The Vendome rehabilitation has become a new beginning for its residents. During planning and construction stages, the HOT Program continued its outreach to some of the most challenging individuals living Downtown. Of the 16 tenants that moved into The Vendome, eight of them were HOT clients including two of the most chronic and difficult individuals to engage on the street. With much patience and perseverance, a year later, they are still there.
Within the first year of the HOT Program, fifteen of the original list of 25-30 chronically homeless individuals responded to outreach efforts and five were housed. After two years, 21 clients from the original list were engaged, 15 had comprehensive assessments and received active case management, and a number moved out of the area. Kelly Mitter, then the Executive Director of the DSMA noted in a 2008 interview in the San Mateo Times, “Over at the train station, where everybody was hanging out when we started this program, that’s diminished dramatically. There used to be people living in Darcy’s Tunnel (along San Mateo Creek), and that’s not happening anymore. There were people sleeping in the parking garages, and I haven’t seen that lately either.” By April 2010, the entire original list had been assessed and housed and San Mateo HOT expanded the list of homeless individuals to assist those beyond the Downtown. Police statistics on number of arrests and medical calls show a significant decrease in service calls for those involved in the HOT program, both the individuals who received housing vouchers and those who moved into the Vendome. Some of the residents with substance abuse issues received almost daily contact with police or emergency medical personnel. One resident currently at the Vendome had over 100 police contacts during the years he lived on the street and zero since moving in a year ago. This success has dovetailed with the ongoing efforts of the City and Downtown merchants to ensure the economic and physical vitality of the Downtown, especially during the recent challenging economy.
A key factor in the success of the HOT program has been the shared commitment to utilize and coordinate existing programs and resources that were previously less effective or underutilized. Lessons learned and criteria for replication have been identified and shared with stakeholders through the HOPE task force. It is now being extended to the cities of Redwood City and East Palo Alto, who have unique challenges in serving their own chronically homeless residents. Understanding the challenges of the chronically homeless, getting support from local officials and community leaders, and the continued collaboration among all partners has been and remains critical to its ongoing success. The City of San Mateo has been proud to lead in this truly collaborative, community effort.