Proposed Corte Madera shelter houses the potential to aid homeless during COVID-19

Taylor Elliott

“The solution to homelessness is [permanent] housing. There are decades of evidence [proving] that is true. And in the last five years, we’ve really made a commitment in Marin to increase the supply of permanent housing [and] to increase the speed with which folks are placed in permanent housing. It’s a big priority for us,” Ashley Hart McIntyre, Marin County’s Homelessness policy analyst, said.

Construction has started at 1595 Casa Buena Drive in Corte Madera, where an old motel was bought for $4.1 million by Marin County to be converted into a homeless shelter. (Taylor Elliott)

With this issue in mind, the Marin Board of Supervisors voted to approve the purchase of 1591 Casa Buena Drive in Corte Madera on Nov. 10. The County of Marin plans to convert the motel formerly known as America’s Best Value Inn to permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals.

According to McIntyre, when California announced that they had set aside $600 million to increase housing for the homeless as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act last July, Marin quickly showed interest in applying for Homekey grant funding from the state. Project Homekey puts both state and federal emergency funds towards buying hotels and other permanent housing facilities to shelter people experiencing homelessness.

“We said, ‘Well, that fits exactly with our priorities [and] it meets a serious emergency need,’” McIntyre said.

The board of supervisors approved the resolution to apply for Homekey funding on Aug. 11. After a public informational workshop hosted by the town of Corte Madera on Oct. 19, McIntyre’s team pursued the Casa Buena property for the project. Once the state approved their application, and the board passed several other resolutions, a final vote to approve the purchase occurred on Nov. 10.

Although the transaction is not yet complete, McIntyre’s team aims to close escrow on Nov. 30 and estimates the shelter will open as interim housing in early to mid-December. McIntyre clarifies that the state of the shelter in December will be temporary due to timeline restrictions outlined by federal legislation. However, the county has future rehabilitation plans to add kitchenettes to the property between July and September 2021 to open as permanent supportive housing for 18 people in the fall.

“What’s unique about this project is the speed with which the funds have to be spent. Federal CARES Act dollars will disappear after Dec. 30 of this year, so we had a massively accelerated timeline,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre also emphasizes the importance of this project as the homeless have been hit incredibly hard by COVID-19.

“People who are outside don’t have access to things like a sink to wash your hands or the ability to keep a mask clean. [Homeless people do not] really have the ability to socially distance, and folks who are currently homeless also have health conditions that are much more severe than folks who are housed,” McIntyre said.

Meeting via Zoom on Nov. 2, 2020, the Corte Madera Town Council discussed Project Homekey and asked for feedback from the public.

In fact, according to McIntyre, those who are chronically homeless have, on average, a medical age of about 25 years greater than their chronological age, putting the homeless in the highest risk category for COVID-19.

Nearby resident and Redwood parent Glen Barras now agrees with McIntyre about the project’s importance; however, his first reaction was averse.

“This is new territory and new ground for all of us. My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, a homeless shelter in our neighborhood.’ And I’m sure that that was a reaction of many other residents,” Barras said. “Once I realized that this was a foregone conclusion, I took a different approach to more embrace the potential for Corte Madera to step up and show other communities around here how we can pull off such a project.”

Not every community member shares this perspective. Co-owner of Marin Joe’s Restaurant Ralph Della Santina not only feels under-informed but quite concerned about the effects the shelter may have on the safety and business of his restaurant next door.

“The only thing we kind of know is the timeframe. We don’t know much of anything else from the town [of Corte Madera] or the county. If the wrong group of people goes in there, I have safety concerns,” Santina said.

Considering these ongoing debates, the town of Corte Madera encourages all community members to attend any one of the frequent Town Council meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom to voice their concerns. Residents may also join the mailing list for Project Homekey Updates to stay informed.