Local churches seeking conditional use permits from San Rafael to provide shelter for homeless people in Marin won approval Dec. 8 when the city’s Planning Commission approved four permits for the city’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin, the Christ Presbyterian Church, the First Presbyterian Church and the First United Methodist Church.
The churches can now join a countywide network of approximately 12 religious institutions participating in an 18-week rotating homeless-shelter program that began Dec. 1. Participating churches will split duties housing 40 men and 20 women throughout the county on different days of the week during the coldest time of the year. Homeless people arrive in the evening at pickup locations throughout the county, and are taken by van to shelters to spend the night.
The effort is funded by $150,000 provided by the Marin Community Foundation, and follows a rotating shelter program that was hastily formed in winter of last year when the county closed the temporary shelter set up at the armory near the Marin County Civic Center. But unlike 2008, churches in San Rafael were told by San Rafael authorities that they had to seek use permits in accordance with the city’s zoning rules. Because the churches didn’t get funding for the operation until August, their applications were submitted late enough to jeopardize their participation in the countywide program. After a contentious council meeting Oct. 5, the Marin Community Foundation and the city agreed to absorb the cost of the use permit applications, and San Rafael’s staff expedited the approval process.
Steve Boyer, director of the St. Vincent’s De Paul Society of Marin, a key player in the shelter program, praised the city for working as quickly as possible.
“I think they did a great job of trying to expedite it. It would have been helpful to have a planning meeting a week earlier, but the staff really did a great job to make this work as fast as possible,” he said.
San Rafael is the only city in the county to require a conditional use permit for the shelters, which has drawn criticism by some who accuse the city of disdaining the homeless population. But San Rafael Community Development Director Bob Brown said churches couldn’t be exempted because the zoning ordinance was clear on the matter.
“San Rafael’s zoning ordinance is very explicit about rotating homeless shelters. Other cities aren’t as clear,” Brown said. “They’ve interpreted this away, but our zoning ordinance was specific because in the early ’90s there were two churches with shelters, and there were some concerns raised, and our council made it abundantly clear these required use permits.”
Brown said the Dec. 8 hearing, while a week after the beginning of the shelter program, was the first available date. “We expedited the heck out of these permits, but the earliest we could get the commission together was Dec. 8, and that was to also provide for the notification periods.”
Caron Parker of the city’s Planning Department said the process normally takes around two months. “In this case, it was a very compressed period. We didn’t ask for things like specially drawn floor plans. We didn’t do some things that we normally do.”
One potential problem still looms, however. The First United Methodist Church faced significant criticism by neighbors over its involvement in the shelter program, due to complaints years earlier, generated by a different homeless shelter operated by congregation. Pastor Liza Klein said she was worried her church’s permit might be appealed, locking it out of participating in the shelter program until at least Jan. 4, the earliest date the appeal could be considered. The deadline for filing an appeal is Dec. 16.
“My neighborhood, people will appeal, it will come before the city council,” Klein said. “We don’t know where the women that were to be located at our church will go. We’re scheduled to have them the first, second, fourth and in some cases the fifth Tuesday of a given month.”
Klein said some neighbors had said they were worried that homeless people would be a disturbance, a concern she said was baseless. “The people staying here are brought to the church around 6 p.m. They come inside, eat, sleep, wake up and leave on a bus in the morning. They’re not allowed out into the neighborhood. There are a lot of people who believe the neighborhood was going to be affected, and there’s no reason to believe that, based on what happened last year and the plan we’ve created for the shelter.”
Members of the local homeless community waiting at St. Vincent de Paul’s in downtown San Rafael to be transported to shelters Dec. 10 said such concerns were based on an unfairly negative perception of the homeless.
Paul Stadium, who said he was recently diagnosed with cancer, urged Marin County residents to understand the homeless population includes many people who have simply fallen on hard times. “If they wanted, they could come to the church and meet us and they’d understand we’re people like them. I had a job, I had a home, custody of my son, insurance. I made one mistake and here I am.”
Stadium said the hospitality shown by the churches was a “godsend.” “The food is great, and the people. You walk in and you can honestly tell that they care about you. They look you in the eye, they shake your hand.”
Another man, Dan Miller, said without the shelters, many homeless couldn’t even legally sleep. “In San Rafael, you have to look around town for some place to sleep without being arrested. Recently I got permission to sleep on private property, but I got a ticket for sleeping outside, and I had to go to court this morning.”
At the St. Vincent de Paul dining room, volunteers checked to make sure people signing up for shelter weren’t intoxicated and understood clearly the rules they had to follow. All the people interviewed said the sheltered understood they had a stake in keeping the program controversy-free.
Boyer said an appeal against the First United Methodist Church of San Rafael could be burdensome for other parishes already accommodating homeless guests on other nights. “We’ll have to find another congregation until their permit can be approved, if it even will be. And if it’s not, we’ll probably have to find another location entirely. It’s not like the churches are fighting each other for an extra night. Most have activities going on in their buildings. Most can’t afford to do it more than one night a week.”
Sharlene Moss, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, whose members largely opposed the First United Methodist Church’s participation in the program, said she had no intention of filing an appeal to the church’s permit, and was encouraging other members of the neighborhood association not to appeal either.
“I don’t think it should be appealed,” Moss said. “I think the commissioners heard the concerns of the neighbors and addressed some of them in the use permit. I’ve asked other neighbors not to appeal it.”
Moss said that despite her organization’s concerns about the church’s operation of the shelter, there was broad support for the creation of a permanent shelter for the homeless by the county, an effort the shelter churches and the Marin Organizing Committee have been working with the county to create for a couple of years.
“People need to pressure their county officials and city officials to address this issue,” Moss said. “It shouldn’t be up to the churches to do this. I think Senate Bill 2 [which requires cities and counties to set up zones where homeless shelters could be established] will make it easier for shelters to go up. The county has a homeless services coordinator coming on in January, and it should be their main focus to get a handle on this.”