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Unhoused community members face hardships during winter weather

Eddie+Metz%2C+a+homeless+occupant+of+Anderson+Dr.+adjacent+to+the+San+Rafael+Creek.+Harsh+%09winter+and+summer+seasons+levy+extreme+environmental+conditions+for+Marins+homeless+population.+
Harry Nemeth
Eddie Metz, a homeless occupant of Anderson Dr. adjacent to the San Rafael Creek. Harsh winter and summer seasons levy extreme environmental conditions for Marin’s homeless population.

As the colder months set in, most Marin residents with adequate housing can head indoors to stay warm, but for the approximately 1,000 unhoused people in Marin County, this is not an option. Unhoused people’s struggles to gain access to shelter, food, and water are especially heightened during winter.

In 2021, Marin County conducted a vehicle count report and found that there was a 119 percent increase in people living in their vehicles in San Rafael from 2019 to 2021. Organizations such as Community Action Marin (CAM) and Homeward Bound aim to help the unhoused by providing humanitarian aid. Homeward Bound has been publicizing its cause by publishing videos and articles for people to view.

A makeshift generator among the stilted tents and tarps that laterally line nearly a mile-long stretch of road along Anderson Dr., wherein power is scarce and all but plenty. This stark lack of modern amenities bars the homeless population from ever fully reentering society, as does public perception often misguidedly scapegoat the poor. (Harry Nemeth)

“I was [living] in [a] car, and I was scared in that car, and it gets scarier and harder as you get older,” said a former Homeward Bound client named Mary in a Youtube video about her experience being unhoused.

Laurel Hill, the Director of Safety Net Services at CAM, has worked with unhoused people from various backgrounds, learning impactful stories daily.

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“We worked with one couple; they were older. They lived in their RV because one of them had cancer. They ended up losing their home [because of the disease’s financial burden],” Hill said.

Shelters like Homeward Bound and CAM understand that people’s financial circumstances change overnight and are here to help them stay productive members of society when they can’t afford to help themselves. Lavedtra Williams, the Supervisor at New Beginnings Center, understands how quickly people’s situations change and outlines that shelters are prepared to be flexible.

“I believe Homeward Bound of Marin has given the population that are without housing a chance at a new start in life with dignity, health, prosperity, and love,” Williams said.

CAPs Community Alternative Response and Engagement (CARE) homeless outreach teams support unhoused people in Marin. The outreach staff visits unhoused encampments and shelters to build relationships with the camp’s residents. CARE’s outreach teams determine what the residents need and work to provide necessities such as food and medical care. Furthermore, the team helps unhoused people access paperwork to apply for state IDs and a Social Security network. The long-term goal is getting people housed.

The Homeward Bound Spring/Summer 2023 newsletter told the story of a formerly unhoused man named Austin, accounting that the rainy months were some of the hardest to live through as an unhoused individual.

“Austin still carries distinct memories of his first winter outside, when rain drenched him for days with no way to get dry,” said the newsletter.

During the coldest months of the year, it is difficult for unhoused people to create habitable shelters, as rain often leaks in and soaks their belongings. Although temporary living shelters, like those by Homeward Bound, exist in Marin, there is not enough space for the entire unhoused population. Other individuals do not want to be in a shelter for various personal reasons.

“The unfortunate truth is even though we have a really great shelter system in Marin, it’s still not enough. There are not enough beds for everyone who wants one by a long shot,” Hill said.

“Knowledge is power,” Metz says. “And you can do anything with power. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do.” (Harry Nemeth)

Chris Hess, the Assistant Director of Community Development in San Rafael explains that the city does have a system for the homeless that allows for shelter during severe weather conditions. There are many ways the city can cope and support during these harsh weather conditions.

“During the winter season, our countywide system of care provides the SWES [Severe Weather Emergency Shelter] on days when extreme temperatures and rainfall are forecasted,” Hess said.

The SWES is a shelter provided for unhoused individuals in a variety of weather conditions including high wind, cold temperatures for an extended period of time, and hazardous air quality.

Thanks to a caring community of aid organizations, much of the unhoused population has been able to receive aid, giving unhoused community members a second chance at safe and stable housing.

”They are regular people that at some point fell on hard times,” Williams said.

The Community Action Marin Shelter, 555 Northgate Dr., San Rafael. (Harry Nemeth)

This story was originally published on The Pitch on December 1, 2023.