SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — As winter approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the need to house the homeless in the Bay Area is more urgent than ever. But KPIX 5 has learned the Trump administration has put the brakes on projects that would help thousands.
“We’re really nervous now that it’s kind of getting into the fall,” said Bill Bedrossian, CEO of non-profit Covenant House California, a non-profit that manages the YEAH! Shelter, the only homeless shelter for youth in Berkeley.
In January, teenagers Jake Gleysteen and Montel Ward were sleeping on the floor of a church. But hope was running high because of an offer from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office: Covenant House was going to receive new trailers to temporarily house them, part of a fleet dispatched from Sacramento.
Fifteen trailers were dropped off in a City of Oakland lot. But nine months later they’re still there, sitting empty. “Some of the trailers got reallocated before we could use them,” said Bedrossian.
First came the pandemic, so Oakland told Bedrossian it had to reclaim the trailers to house COVID patients. Then in July, a positive update: Caltrans was going to make available a lot in West Oakland, at Third and Peralta, for all fifteen trailers. “We had a plan that was ready to execute. Our youth was prepared to move, our staff was prepared to move,” said Bedrossian.
Then another roadblock, this time from Washington. It turned out the Trump administration yanked approval to use highway land for homeless projects across California, after President Trump made remarks criticizing California’s handling of the homeless crisis.
Letters we obtained between the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Caltrans show the FHWA revoked approval of five projects in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, saying “temporary homeless shelters are not an appropriate use of the highway ROW (right of way).”
Caltrans director Toks Omishakin fired back, saying Washington’s “unexpected revocations have created a highly unfortunate situation for all parties.”
The FHWA eventually approved two of the disputed locations in San Francisco. But approval for the third and largest temporary housing project, a 200-bed navigation center next to Interstate Highway 280 and Evans Avenue, remains revoked. So does federal approval for major homeless housing projects in Los Angeles and Sacramento.
“The very people, the Trump Administration, who are beating us over the head saying, you’re not doing nearly enough to clean up this homeless problem are denying us the ability to go forward with our project,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
The ruling from Washington has caused months of delays, said Steinberg, even as the homeless crisis intensifies.
“All we want to do in our city and in other cities is bring people who are homeless inside, for safety, for health and to reduce the homeless problem in our city,” he said.
But Steinberg also says disregarding Washington could have serious consequences. In one letter to Caltrans, the FHWA warns it “may take any action deemed appropriate, including withholding federal-aid highway funding … if a state fails to comply with federal requirements.”
“We are working in partnership with Governor Newsom and Caltrans, and I think it’s important that we stay connected here,” said Steinberg. “Because I do understand there’s more at stake than just the one project in my city.”
Like the project next to I-280 in San Francisco, where city officials are also fighting back. In an email, Mayor London Breed’s press director Andy Lynch told us “We’re continuing to move forward under the approval we have received from Caltrans.”
Oakland did not respond to our calls for comment. We found no sign of activity on the lot on 3rd and Peralta streets. Meanwhile, the search for an alternate site has gone nowhere.
“I’m really disappointed for our youth because they were really looking forward to having 24/7 shelter space,” said Bedrossian. “And we were really looking forward to being able to provide them with the round-the-clock case management and educational employment support they really need to be successful.”
We reached out to the FHWA for comment but still haven’t heard back. But there is some good news to report: We just found out Jake Gleysteen, one of the young men staying at Covenant House, has finally moved into his own apartment. Montel Ward is staying at Covenant House in Oakland, still looking for a place to call home.
Statement from Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin:
“In accordance with California law, Caltrans made state-owned land available for cities to establish temporary emergency shelters for people experiencing homelessness. In recognizing the significant challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness and local governments in establishing shelters, we continue to work with the Federal Highway Administration to find a resolution to our current status.”
Statement from San Francisco Mayor London Breed:
The 1925 Evans site is currently under construction and is scheduled to open in January to begin helping unhoused residents off the street and into shelter and services. We’re continuing to move forward under the approval we have received from Caltrans. San Francisco needs more shelter placements, more permanent supportive housing, and more mental health and substance use treatment facilities to serve people in need. Mayor Breed is committed to ensuring that we have the resources we need to address homelessness in the City.