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‘Dignity’ takes center stage at Concord’s reimagined homeless shelter

There’s no disputing the pandemic disrupted life as we knew it, but in some ways, the status quo was due for a shakeup and the temporary time-out provided necessary space, time and investment to reimagine and innovate. The past 15 months particularly sharpened the lens on how we see and treat homelessness. 

Proving to be hotbeds for virus transmission, traditional high-density, dormitory-style homeless shelters were forced to adapt or shut down entirely as Covid-19 cases began to climb in the spring of 2020, especially in congregate settings. As shelter residents were reshuffled to safer locations, like repurposed motels under the state’s Project Roomkey program, many empty facilities embarked on long-needed transformations. For one shelter in North Concord, the opportunity to renovate with a sudden infusion of federal investment completely changed the game.

After more than a year of closure, the Concord Shelter and Service Center on Arnold Industrial Way reopened its doors Thursday as not just a place to find a roof and bed, but as a gateway to permanent housing in a space that prioritizes privacy, safety and human dignity. The remarkable shift made possible by federal CARES Act funding enabled Contra Costa Health Services to finally tackle many “barriers” that commonly deter people from seeking shelter and the resources they desperately need. Jenny Robbins, chief of programs for the CCHS Health, Housing and Homeless Services division, said the chance to create an inviting and safe space was long overdue but financially out of reach, until now. 

During a tour of the facility Wednesday, Robbins said the redesign was a conscious effort to address health and safety issues while also giving clients the privacy “they have been asking for.”

She said:

“[B]eing in a dorm setting has been a barrier for folks coming to shelters. … COVID really prompted this, but it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”  

The shelter now provides what are essentially private rooms where there were once cots without separation. Fifty-four single-occupancy “sleep stations” provide tall wall panels with windows and doors, and each is equipped with a bed, desk, chair, corkboard, storage for personal items and USB charging ports. 

Corridors of sleep stations are divided into spaces for men and women, with a third mixed-gender area available. 

Additionally, six larger rooms have been added to accommodate adult families, couples and clients with ADA-compliance and other special needs. The facility is also friendly to service dogs. An ability to keep loved ones, including pets, together is immeasurably valuable for many people who would otherwise avoid shelter settings. 

While the conversion did reduce overall capacity by 15 percent, the state’s Homekey program, which enabled motel purchases for permanent transitional housing use, is helping make up the deficit. Placement is handled primarily by Contra Costa County’s C.O.R.E. homeless outreach teams, but the large facility maintains emergency “warm” beds and a separate area for individuals transitioning out of the county’s mental health hospital. 

Nik Wojcik/SFBay With an attention to aesthetic detail and privacy priority, the Concord Shelter and Service Center in Concord, Calif. reopens to homeless clients on Thursday, June 24, 2021 after more than a year of closure due to Covid-19.

The service center portion of the building, which officially reopens later in August, has also been extensively reworked to provide onsite resources for both shelter and non-shelter clients, including laundry, showers, mail service and a restroom accessible 24 hours a day.

 An outdoor “pocket park” provides open space to catch a breath, eat meals, refill water bottles and kennel companion dogs for short periods. Areas are carved out to host sister programs, such as 12-step meetings.

The end opposite the pocket park still houses a medical and dental clinic, as well as space for computer access and separate medical respite beds. Covid-19 vaccinations and testing will be provided at the site’s medical center.

The Concord facility is a “wet shelter,” which does not require absolute substance abstinence, though drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited at the site. 

Robbins said:

“Folks can be on site under the influence so long as there’s not a behavioral or health and safety issue.”

Residents are welcome to stay for 120 days but Robbins said extensions are granted for people working on housing plans who have yet to find solutions, which is too often the case in the current Bay Area market. 

The first residents to break in the new facility Thursday were transferred in from two Concord Project Roomkey hotels — Robbins anticipated the shelter would be immediately filled to capacity.    

Contra Costa County, which is home to nearly 1.2 million residents, has experienced a homeless population surge similar to what’s been seen in many large West Coast cities as housing prices surge and mental health and substance abuse assistance programs fail to meet increasing demand.

While true point-in-time counts are lacking due to Covid-19 disruption, the growing number and size of homeless encampments provide anecdotal evidence of a growing problem, especially along freeways and canals in centrally-located cities like Concord and Richmond. The county, now focused on meaningful transition to permanent housing and reduction of the rotating door system, is capitalizing on newfound resources to tackle the issue directly with the updated Concord shelter and another complete makeover in the works at its Richmond facility. The Richmond shelter is due for completion sometime in August or September.

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