A new proposition for housing the homeless sparks controversy among Greenbrae residents

Alexandrea Coe

Currently vacant, Eliseo is in the works of getting the grants needed to start a 12 month period of construction.

On Oct. 12, 2021, the Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a request for a grant to convert a vacant $11 million building in Greenbrae to a 43-unit complex for homeless individuals in the community. However, mixed reactions from residents created turmoil among the community as Project Homekey, an organization that creates housing solutions for homeless individuals, announced 1251 South Eliseo Drive, next to the MarinHealth Medical Center, as the site for the housing project. Project Homekey is a state-subsidized program founded to increase available housing by providing counties with the necessary funding to rehabilitate buildings and underutilized spaces. In partnership with Episcopal Community Services, Marin County is currently requesting funding in order to finalize the purchase of the 26,638 square foot building on South Eliseo. If the grant is approved, the county estimates the 43-unit apartment complex, referred to by many as “Eliseo,” to open its doors in December 2022.

Unlike other programs, permanent supportive housing helps homeless individuals access service-rich environments. It provides support in the form of educational employment opportunities, access to meals, correctional behavioral management classes and mental health support services. Not only do individuals in the program gain stable housing, they are also supported and set up for a brighter future. 

Marin County District 2 Supervisor Katie Rice believes this system is key to reducing homelessness.

“Permanent housing is the solution to getting people off the streets [and that is what] Project Homekey can accomplish with Eliseo. It is a permanent housing solution unlike a shelter. We are offering homeless people places where they can live for a long time,” Rice said.

Having remained unoccupied for the past six years, the building at 1251 S. Eliseo Drive stays unchanged and boarded up.

Despite the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ support for the program, members of the Greenbrae community are worried about safety. On Nextdoor, a social networking app created for neighborhoods to stay connected, Greenbrae residents expressed their frustrations with the proposition. 

Barbara Durfee, an active member of Greenbrae’s Nextdoor community, expressed her concerns on the platform, referencing her experiences with such homeless programs while living in San Francisco.  

Homeless [people] were put up in hotels in San Francisco during COVID-19 [and] the rooms were trashed. Now, they are giving [out] keys for permanent housing and moving them out of the city into our [Marin] neighborhoods. This is not the answer, and definitely not a win for the taxpayers,” Durfee wrote in a Nextdoor post.

Pere Wait, a parent in Greenbrae, is frustrated with the opposition to Project Homekey’s objective. Having lived in Marin County her whole life, she states the common misconceptions she has heard from Greenbrae community members.

“You say homelessness and people immediately think of someone with a criminal record, abusive tendencies and mental health issues. For many, that word has so much negativity attached to it, which is really hard to change,” Pere said. “However, now that I have a better understanding of what [Project Homekey] is and does, I don’t feel unsafe for myself or my kids. More people need to know the facts before jumping to conclusions.”

Residing next to the Marin Health Medical Center, the proposed 43 unit permanent supportive housing facility is located on 1251 S. Eliseo Drive.

According to Rice, Eliseo residents will be supervised 24-hours and staff will receive required administrative training in how to de-escalate issues. 

Junior Harry Wait, Pere’s 16-year-old son, states his frustrations with the Greenbrae community, highlighting the irony of it all. 

“People ask for homeless shelters and then don’t like it when they are being built [in their communities.] They have to be built somewhere,” Harry said. “It’s important to remember that these are regular people. They [just] got the short end of the stick.” 

As the county’s application for funding from Project Homekey is due by the end of the month, for the time being, Eliseo will only serve single adults experiencing chronic homelessness, leaving out families and other individuals who do not fit the criteria.

“The problem of homelessness is a very complex one, and because [of its complexities] there isn’t going to be an absolutely perfect solution [that can be] done easily or quickly. Project Homekey and the approach it has taken, taking underutilized real estate to provide housing for unhoused people, is one thing, and we need many things. This program is a step forward in the right direction,” Pere said.