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Sleepless in Monterey County: Shelters Cover 15% of Homeless Population

As the weather gets colder, providing shelter for the homeless becomes a bigger priority throughout California.   In Monterey County, the homeless population far outnumbers the amount of available shelter beds; being homeless means you probably don’t know where you are going to sleep tonight.

Every afternoon, a group of homeless men quietly gathers at the parking lot across from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

Only the hum of cars on Del Monte Avenue and the occasional bike on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail breaks the silence. Against the fading sunlight, one of the men stands out.

Floyd DePew wears a cobalt blue tie-dye T-shirt with purple shorts and has a big, fluffy gray beard. He says he’s been homeless for decades.  

“It’s been a long time. It’s been my lifestyle. It’s the only way I could really afford to live around here, you know, at a certain point. And then I just got used to it,” DePew says.

At exactly 5 o’clock, a bus pulls into the parking lot and the group shuffles on. The destination is a local church where they’ll have dinner and get some sleep.

This program is called I-HELP, short for Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program. DePew says I-HELP gives him a safe and comfortable place to spend the night.   

“And when you’re in this type of situation you can use all the support you can get. So I can’t say enough good things about all of the churches that are involved,” says DePew.

I-HELP shelters up to 25 men, taking them to different churches around the Monterey Peninsula every night. There’s also a separate bus and church for homeless women.

It’s one of several programs in the county that together will provide 259 emergency shelter beds this winter. That’s not enough for the more than 1,600 homeless people sleeping outside, in their cars, or in abandoned buildings or encampments in Monterey County.

Katherine Thoeni is Executive Officer of the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers.  The non-profit coordinates homeless services in Monterey and San Benito counties.

“What is needed is a general shelter. We need one located on the Peninsula and we need one located in Salinas. And they need to be year-round,” says Thoeni.

Thoeni says the challenge of building these emergency homeless shelters is figuring out where to put them.   

“Please stop the natural and understandable response of, ‘oh we want to help, but not where I live, not in my neighborhood’,” says Thoeni.   

That’s the problem the City of Monterey is facing. The city is in the middle of rezoning an area where a shelter could be built. State law requires cities to do this.  The proposed location is between Casa Verde and Seaside city limits. The area is densely packed with auto dealers, light industrial businesses and some homes. Monterey’s Principal Planner Elizabeth Caraker says neighbors have expressed safety concerns.

“They’re also worried about what will happen to their property values,” Caraker says.

It’s not clear exactly where a shelter could go in the area or even who would build it.  But if the area is rezoned, it opens the door for that to happen, with some rules. For example, there would be a limit of 35 beds.

“We definitely agree that the Peninsula needs to provide shelter and not expect Salinas shelters to house the homeless here on the Peninsula,” says Caraker. 

Until then, programs like I-HELP are trying to fill the void.

Karen Araujo is on the board of the organization that runs I-HELP. She’ll be the first to tell you this service is a not a long-term solution.

“We don’t want to normalize picking up folks in a bus and taking them to a church as a long term solution to homelessness. Yet it is an option of addressing these individuals who would otherwise be sleeping outdoors or in their cars,” Araujo says.

Floyd DePew considers himself one of the lucky ones.  If he can’t get an I-HELP bed, he owns a van he can sleep in.

“The real reality is there’s not very much here. So if somehow they could get together and make a change it would help a lot of people,” says DePew.

A permanent shelter would take some more off the streets. Still, homeless advocates say the long-term solution is creating truly affordable housing in Monterey County. Erika Mahoney, KAZU News.