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Surge in need for shelter, housing overwhelms Bay Area providers

Pleas from people who were homeless or struggling to keep their housing spiked last year, according to new data from the Bay Area’s helplines — reaching a four-year high that highlights just how desperate the region’s affordable housing crisis has become.

Nearly half of the almost 52,000 people who called 211 — the nationwide social services hotline — in six Bay Area counties last year needed housing help, from a place to shelter for the night to assistance paying their rent so they wouldn’t be evicted. That’s up from about a third the year before.

The surge in demand, which came as the last statewide COVID-19 eviction protections expired and inflation soared, is overwhelming the Bay Area’s resources, meaning many people in need are turned away or left to languish on long waitlists.

“We’ve always received calls about housing needs, but the past quarter especially we’ve been seeing thousands of our neighbors reach out about housing,” said Clare Margason, 211 director for United Way Bay Area. “Our residents are struggling to pay their rent, to meet basic needs.”

United Way recently released its first public, online database tracking the number and types of calls it receives at the 211 centers it operates for San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin, Napa and Solano counties. (The call centers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties are run by different organizations.) Margason hopes the data will help make their services stronger by identifying gaps in resources.

After housing at 47%, food was the second-most needed resource last year, comprising nearly 17% of requests, followed by help with health care, at 13%. Requests for help with mental health or substance abuse, at nearly 7%, also ticked up despite the launch last summer of 988 — a nationwide mental health crisis hotline.

Pleas for housing help have soared in Alameda County as well, jumping up 27% last year, according to Eden I&R, which operates the county’s 211 line locally. The call center, which keeps an extensive housing database, sometimes can refer callers directly to affordable housing units or shelter beds, or help them get on waitlists. Because of the bureaucratic nature of the county’s affordable housing system, 211 operators often have to refer callers to other resource centers where they can begin a complicated screening process to determine if they are eligible for help.

“There’s never enough,” said Eden I&R Executive Director Alison DeJung. “It can be pretty common that a caller will call and there’s no shelter bed available.”

Because the need is so great, her team launched a new “housing specialty unit” in October designed to help callers hold onto their housing and avoid ending up on the street. They hired three employees specially trained in tenant rights to help callers who are at risk of eviction or struggling to pay rent. The Bay Area’s other 211 call centers are working on similar experimental programs.

United Way outsourced its 211 call centers to Southern California in 2012 due to financial challenges and now calls from San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Napa, Marin and Sonora counties are answered in Ventura County.

In Santa Clara County, there has been such a desperate need for emergency shelter that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the county launched a separate hotline just to connect people to beds. Dubbed the Here4You hotline — 408-385-2400 — the number is now operated by the Bill Wilson Center, which runs shelters and housing programs in the county. Before the recent storms wreaked havoc on the region, the hotline received about 300 calls per day, said CEO Sparky Harlan. Now, that’s up to between 400 and 450. There are so many people in need, that the call center is constantly turning people away.

“We’re probably able to place a third of the people right now that are calling,” Harlan said.

The need is similarly high in Contra Costa County, where the number of calls specifically related to evictions nearly doubled — increasing from 681 in 2021 to 1,196 last year.

“It’s always our number-one reason people are calling us, is for housing needs,” said Tom Tamura, executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center, which operates the county’s 211 line.

Tom Myers, executive director of the nonprofit Community Services Agency in Mountain View, isn’t surprised by the spike in 211 requests for housing. He’s seen a similar increase at his own agency — both in the number of people who need help paying rent and in those who are trying to claw their way out of homelessness. Unable to keep up with demand, his team is forced to put people on waiting lists. The average wait for rental assistance is between two and four weeks, he said.

“Unfortunately, I think we’ve known for some time that we have a group of people who are living in incredibly housing insecure environments,” Myers said. “And that number increased. It multiplied during COVID. And it’s not going away. Until the Bay Area solves its affordable housing crisis, we are going to continue to have this problem.”

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