The Character of Our Community

Heavy rainThe weather’s been a big story in Marin County recently—frigid temperatures along with heavy rains and wind that mean rising creeks and falling trees, power lines, even hillsides. Town officials issue storm bulletins; neighbors help each other and downtown merchants prepare for the onslaught.

The sense of a community coming together to protect itself was in evidence during my walk to my favorite cafe on a recent Saturday morning. The creek was rushing high and muddy, but floodgates and sandbags were at the ready.

As I sipped my coffee while reading the local paper, another big story jumped out at me, one that also held the promise of a community coming together, this time to protect its most vulnerable residents. The Dominican Sisters are seeking the City of San Rafael’s permission to convert a small part of their convent to house two women and their young children for up to two years. These single mothers, with the help of Homeward Bound, are on their way from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Although many support the Sisters’ admirable plan, the article reports that a majority who’d sent written comments oppose the proposal. Their cited objections are specious: contrary to the concerns raised, there are clear criteria for conduct and tenant selection; parking already exists for the maximum addition of two cars; neighbors received proper and timely notification; and the plan does not serve as a magnet for the homeless. (Nor do other programs; the vast majority of Marin’s homeless population lived here before losing their housing, and our county’s affordability crisis places many more current residents at risk.)

The paper also featured a story about efforts to increase emergency shelter for the homeless during the storm. The Rotating Emergency Shelter Team (REST), a volunteer, faith-based, half-year program that provides dinner and shelter for up to 20 women and 40 men, has been able to serve several more during severe weather. In coordination with St. Vincent’s, REST volunteers consistently offer compassionate care and community to those it serves.

Yet the latest available Point-in-Time Count found 1,309 homeless individuals in Marin; sixty-four percent of these were unsheltered. As the numbers make clear, REST’s vital and valiant efforts are a drop in the bucket. The program was intended as a stop-gap measure, but is entering its ninth year as one proposal after another for long-term solutions to our homeless and housing crises gets shot down.

What does it say about a community that begrudges transitional housing to two women and their children? Or that has failed to provide permanent, year-round shelter to our most vulnerable residents? Broadening the scope just a little beyond one news cycle, we find other telling stories:

Measure A, which would have raised the sales tax by ¼ cent to benefit health and education programs for disadvantaged children, failed to meet the two-thirds vote requirement. This is always a high threshold to reach. Yet support decreased after affordable-housing opponents fabricated a spurious link between Measure A and high-density development.

For years we’ve witnessed vocal residents routinely organizing to defeat most proposals that would ease the housing crisis. The latest target is a project for low-income seniors in Fairfax.

“We’re in favor of affordable housing,” opponents repeatedly maintain, “Just not here!”

Nor, apparently, anywhere.

We often hear about how we must preserve the character of Marin. But which character? Just one day’s interlocking news stories illustrate both the heart and heartlessness of our community. We face a clear choice. Will we come together for the sake of all our residents, or stand only in defense of our own backyards?


Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal, 1/20/17

I am pleased to report that the Dominican Sisters were granted the permit to proceed with their remodeling to accommodate two women and their children on the path from homelessness to self-sufficiency.



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