Homelessness was growing in the Tri-Valley before last year, but after forcing local nonprofits to pivot their usual operations at a moment's notice, the COVID-19 pandemic has also created a cohesive safety net for individuals close to or already living on the streets.
Since March 2020, three of the region's most visible nonprofit organizations have formed a triad of interconnected resources and services, including food and rental assistance, emergency shelter, and medical care. CityServe of the Tri-Valley, which works directly with the area's homeless community, has responded to a big shift in their needs over the past year.
"We've been doing a lot of things -- identifying the most vulnerable, above 65 age range or that had chronic illness to make sure they were aware of safe ground hotel operations and some of these programs launched through the county, to make sure they were isolated and stay safe, whether they had COVID or not," CityServe CEO Christine Beitsch-Bahmani told the Weekly in an interview. "Our biggest part was identifying them, making sure they were placed in hotels."
At the onset of sheltering in place 12 month ago, CityServe had ceased its outreach as well as closed the usual dining halls and showers, but then eventually resumed activity. They also partnered with Alameda Healthcare for the Homeless to set up three different pop-ups to test people living outside for COVID. Recently, CityServe also started offering the first round of COVID-19 vaccines to clients.
Referrals come to CityServe through a number of different channels, including the Pleasanton Police Department's "Homeless Liaison Team" comprising two dedicated full-time members.
"If they knew someone, they would let us know," Beitsch-Bahmani said.
Homeless Liaison Team members Nicole Evans and Lisa Cavellini said in a statement that their roles are "designed to be advocates for our unhoused and for the expansion of service agencies in our community."
"During the early stages of the pandemic, our officers assisted by locating our community's most vulnerable homeless, facilitating temporary housing placement and transporting individuals to designated locations," they said. "They worked hard to ensure referrals to service agencies were successful, and individuals were outreached promptly, allowing them to safely shelter in place."
Outreach was already a main component of CityServe's program that expanded in 2020. Staff and volunteers spent the summer making sure people outside weren't dehydrated by doing water runs, and also assembled pop-up tents down by creeks where they handed out sunscreen, lip balm, and clothing for the hot weather.
Beitsch-Bahmani said they do pop-ups at different locations, depending on the time of year. "In the summer we'll do one down at the creek because people tend to be a little more lethargic, so we'll go closer to the people to do the pop-ups," she said. "We go month by month. We're very mobile so we can pop up anywhere.
"Pleasanton homeless are remote all over the city, but it's obvious in Livermore where the high count areas are," she added.
"We had offices that people could come to, so once things changed, we had to go out to people, and we wanted to do that anyhow," Beitsch-Bahmani said. "The pop-up generation came from the pandemic, and we'll probably keep it because it's actually nice."
"We're trying to do pop-ups to almost where there's mini-resource centers so it's a one-stop. I feel like the Valley is doing a great job."
CityServe is opening offices in Livermore in July, where there will be multiple services available. "That'll be our hub where people can come," she said. "As long as (COVID case rates) keeps going in the direction it is, people will be able to come inside, hopefully."
Response is the primary function of CityServe, but the nonprofit also does prevention work such as rental assistance and has a team dedicated to helping people at risk and "make sure they don't fall into homelessness," which Beitsch-Bahmani said is a "big piece that a lot of people don't understand" about the crisis.
"They think it's addressing people on the streets and not those one check away from being homeless," she said.
"For every two (people) that fall into homelessness, only one gets back in," Beitsch-Bahmani said. "If you don't address prevention and keeping people in homes -- one, it increases homelessness, and two, it takes away from resources."
"I'm from the team of 'let's not increase homelessness, let's keep people in their homes and prevent it,'" she added. "It's very difficult to get people back into housing. I think the better, wiser investment is to keep those very, very low income families in their homes."
The homelessness prevention team also helps those transitioning back into housing by helping them learn to navigate everyday tasks and scenarios. Taking public transportation or going shopping for groceries can all be barriers or challenges to people reintegrating into mainstream society, according to Beitsch-Bahmani.
"I've been really impressed with the Tri-Valley," Beitsch-Bahmani said. "They've really been coming together to wrap around these folks that are in crisis and make sure they understand they have access to those resources. We always want to be that nonprofit that brings everybody together."
Tri-Valley Haven director of development Christine Dillman, who works with survivors of domestic violence -- a demographic often in need of emergency shelter -- told the Weekly, "It's no surprise to anyone that the need has grown during the pandemic. Families that were already on the cusp of homelessness or food insecurity, the pandemic really put them over the edge."
Like CityServe, Tri-Valley Haven not only provides emergency shelter for individuals fleeing an unsafe home, but also tries to stop them from falling into homelessness through other means.
"The reason our programs are so comprehensive is sometimes it can be somebody who lost their job and they're living paycheck to paycheck," Dillman said.
Clients can stay as long as they need at Tri-Valley Haven's shelter, Dillman said, adding that the organization also helps with transitioning into permanent housing, sometimes paying up to 90% of the client's rent until they land on their feet. Once they are established, the client slowly begins to take over and pay more rent themselves.
"As long as they're able to pay more, we pay less and they still get all of the same services. We're really trying to make sure we support them in the shelter and after they leave," Dillman said. "We also have a program for if somebody's in an abusive relationship and needs first month's rent to get out."
When the pandemic struck, Ralph Johnson, director of homeless and family support services, said Tri-Valley Haven couldn't accommodate as many clients in their shelter due to a mandatory decrease in capacity. As a result, more people have been referred to hotel programs through the county's coordinated entry system instead.
"It's in the last six months or so we are getting far less referrals, so it's taking a longer time to replace the openings we have at our shelter," Johnson said. "I think we're getting less referrals because a lot of these people are getting into these hotels, though we're full at the moment."
Dillman also said Tri-Valley Haven's shelters have remained busy, though "we of course have to shelter people in a very different way."
"As families come in, we may need to motel them for several nights, but we still provide them all of the same services in the motel. It's expensive, it's a lot of staff time, but it's necessary; we know we have to do it," she said.
"We've been very lucky and not having cases of COVID in our shelter, but I think that's because we've been so, so careful keeping families in their own rooms," Dillman added.
For those staying in the shelter, access to the outside world has been limited since March 2020. Prior to the pandemic, clients were free to stay out all day but are now restricted to trips for essential needs including health care, food, and exercise. While inside, they are also required to wear face masks.
"Even though we're doing that, it doesn't prevent us from doing all the services that we do," Johnson said. "If they need to attend a job interview, look for housing, they continue to do that. That was the biggest change."
After sheltering started, Tri-Valley Haven also moved its grocery distribution operations entirely outside and all foods are now packaged to lessen interaction between staff and clients, and among the clients themselves.
With many of their volunteers being older and at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, Dillman said the organization didn't want to risk their health and safety so "we really had to have our staff do multiple jobs," including tasks they wouldn't normally handle.
Though now under a tent, clients can still get fish, chicken, beef, dairy and produce, as well as fresh eggs and goods like sugar, flour and cooking oil.
At the moment, "we're averaging between 40 and 55 households a day, each week day," according to Johnson.
Besides having its own on-site food pantry, Tri-Valley Haven also operates a mobile pantry and runs a drive-thru food distribution with Open Heart Kitchen twice weekly at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
Open Heart Kitchen's program coordinator, Shawnda Bost, has been distributing hot meals to clients since starting as a volunteer more than a decade ago. When the pandemic started, Alameda County was running the grocery distribution program at the fairgrounds until Open Heart Kitchen and Tri-Valley Haven were asked to take over.
The program was a slight deviation from the usual meal delivery they offered; Open Heart Kitchen previously offered hot meals on site or to go at different locations, just a few days a week.
"Ready-made food is so important to the unhoused community because they lack the kitchen facilities or refrigeration to store foods," Bost said. "Before the pandemic, on Thursdays we were going to encampments but only one day a week. All of that change with the pandemic. We had a to-go meal where you were driving through and walking up or picking up. At that time they really wanted unhoused clients to shelter in place."
For Open Heart Kitchen, "what we did was we took our street outreach program and made it six days a week, going to where they are," she added.
Clients can now stop and grab meals at 14 different locations, including a breakfast grocery bag for the next day.
About the people they serve and where they come from, "Most of the time, it is the same clients," Bost said. "That's why we stop at those certain locations on our routes, but there's definitely new people that are coming into the area. But for most of 2020, people were sheltering in place."
Bost added, "It's mainly individuals, for sure, and for age range, I think it just varies, honestly. You can see younger people in their 20s all the way up to seniors, and we don't know exactly how old they are, but it varies."
On the streets, Bost has not seen any children in local encampments, only adults. Before the pandemic, she did see families at distribution sites, but the organization does not make it a practice of asking clients about their housing situation.
And "if we do know where there is someone staying in their car, for the most part, it's individuals, she said.
Since the global health crisis, Bost said there has been more partnership among local nonprofits, allowing each one to focus on their specialty.
"You also don't want to duplicate resources," she added. "You want to be in constant communication, not overlapping, which is hard to do."