Purpose of the 3/21/16 City Council Meeting – On March 21st, 2016, the City Council reviewed the Ritter Center’s 6-month performance report. This was the fifth such report created by City staff working with in conjunction with Ritter Center staff (you can read the report and watch the meeting here). The performance report covers the Ritter Center’s compliance with its use permit, which regulates client caseload, litter control and security/safety issues.
City Council Direction to Staff – At the end of the meeting, the City Council accepted the staff report. The City Council also directed staff to research the following options and come back to the Council as early as May 2016 with recommendations (to be crystal clear, no action has yet been taken to modify the Ritter Center’s current operations):
- Consider a modification to the use permit, which could include – among a variety of options – potentially reducing in the number of clients Ritter can serve to a full revocation of the use permit.
- Consider a moratorium (i.e. a temporary prohibition of activity) on day service uses at Ritter in order to study and consider potential changes to the Zoning Ordinance related to certain uses that cater to homeless services. On Friday March 24th, KTVU reported that, “The City Council recently approved a moratorium on many downtown homeless services and could ban homeless services altogether.” This information is inaccurate. There is not currently a moratorium on Ritter or any other homeless service provider in Downtown San Rafael.
Formation of Subcommittees – The City Council has also created two sub-committees. One subcommittee, composed of Vice Mayor Colin and Councilmember Bushey, will be looking at modifications to Ritter’s current operations, and the other sub-committee, composed of Mayor Phillips and Councilmember Gamblin, will be looking at relocation options. I will be working closely with both sub-committees, and I believe we will be coming back with some practical yet innovative modifications to the status quo.
The goal of the staff recommendations and the subcommittees is to reimagine the status quo. As many, many people shared both at the City Council meeting itself, as well as through the public comments leading up to and coming in after the meeting, there is excitement that something is being done. It is the City’s position that the status quo is not working – not for residents, not for merchants, not for unhoused community members, and not for the Ritter Center as an organization.
As it was my first City Council meeting as an employee with the City, I have to say that I was very encouraged by the level of engagement I witnessed. I also read every single email and public comment that came in, and I really appreciate everyone who took the time and energy to share their thoughts. A few themes emerged, and I wanted to share a couple observations with you.
- There is very broad consensus that the Ritter Center is providing vital services to those in need. However, the current configuration of these services is not working, and action will be taken to reimagine and redesign the status quo. It is our belief that a better service environment can and should emerge, one that provides a safe environment for all, utilizes data-driven tactics and strategies for ending people’s homelessness, and considers every community member’s wants, needs, and experiences.
- There is a critique that the City is not being compassionate enough around the issue of homelessness. I absolutely do not believe this to be true. For the past three years the City has been funding the Downtown Streets Team, which in addition to helping more than 60 people obtain employment has – I firmly believe – helped change the conversation about homelessness and those experiencing it. The City has also hired an absolutely fantastic mental health outreach provider, Lynn Murphy, who is doing phenomenal work with our most vulnerable community members. Additionally, St. Vincent’s, the County of Marin, and the City of San Rafael are spearheading something called the HOT Program (with many other great partners like Marin Housing Authority, Homeward Bound, Ritter, and Community Action Marin) to also try to help our most vulnerable community members. Part of this effort is our recognition that not every homeless person is the same, and we want to prioritize assistance for those individuals with very serious mental health and substance abuse issues. It is our belief that when we receive community feedback about very negative experiences with homeless individuals, it is stemming from this subgroup of very ill people. It is difficult work, but other communities have successfully helped these individuals get off the street, and we can too. I also really want to thank all of the amazing men and women working with the City of San Rafael, especially those individuals with the City’s Police Department, Fire Department, Parks Department, Library, and Public Works Department, who are on the frontlines of this issue displaying dogged tenacity and resilience on a daily basis. They deserve our utmost gratitude for their service.
- Lastly, I want to emphasize that public policy at the City is driven by the needs, hopes, values, and frustrations of our residents and merchants. When we receive a petition in support of the Ritter Center signed by over 600 people, with 65% of those individuals identifying themselves by a city other than San Rafael (95%+ being in Marin), we recognize our responsibility as the County Seat of Marin, but there is a distinction between principle and lived experience. Our residents and business owners are having very negative, visceral experiences around homelessness, and we have to change that. I have said it before and I will say it again, homelessness it the most difficult social challenge we face, and it requires an ongoing commitment to build consensus and make difficult decisions. To our friends and neighbors throughout this great county, I ask that whether it is time, energy, expertise, or funding, please join us in identifying and implementing solutions that are just, pragmatic, and context-appropriate.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to read this update. If anything in here has resonated with you, please share this message with friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues.