• Giselle Hale

San Mateo County breaks ground on navigation center

Doors to open by end of year; ending homelessness under same timeline

April 14, 2022, The Daily Journal


With support from federal, state, local and philanthropic dollars, San Mateo County has broken ground on a 240-bedroom navigation center more than a decade in the making with aims to end homelessness in the county by the end of the year.


“When you have that vision, good things can happen,” County Executive Officer Mike Callagy said Wednesday morning at a groundbreaking ceremony. “This is the beginning of the year of ending homelessness. … It starts here today and we’ll just go forward.”


Two- and three-story rows of prefabricated modular units will become temporary homes for hundreds of county residents currently living without shelter. Center residents will have access to private bedrooms, most with their own bathrooms, and support services and other recreational amenities including a dog run and barbecue area.


In total, the center will cost $57 million to build. Most of the funding came from the state through Project Homekey, an initiative to help municipalities turn hotels into transitional housing that was born from Project Roomkey, a push to get homeless residents into hotel rooms during the pandemic.


Aside from the state’s $55.3 million contribution — $46.1 million for development and $9.2 million for operating costs — philanthropist John Sobrato also contributed $5 million to the project and another $500,000 in federal funding was secured by U.S. Rep Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.


Sobrato said he’s committed to backing a total of 10 navigation centers across San Mateo and Santa Clara counties as long as jurisdictions are willing to lease the land for no more than $1 a year for more than 60 years.


“This is going to be an innovative project that I expect other communities in California are going to be copying. We’re doing things quite differently here,” Sobrato said. “It’s just really going to be a special, special place.”

San Mateo County’s navigation center will be going up on newly obtained county land following a land swap between the county and Redwood City last September. The swap involved a 2.5-acre parcel at 1469 Maple St. now in county possession and 1580 Maple St., a 2-acre parcel just behind the Redwood City Police Department now owned by the city.


Redwood City is home to the greatest proportion of unhoused residents in the county compared to other municipalities, according to the county’s 2019 One Day Homeless Count that found more than 1,500 people were unsheltered in the county. Data from an updated count will be released later this year.

Redwood City Mayor Giselle Hale, an early supporter of the land swap and navigation center, lauded the public and private collaboration that has gone into the project while noting much more work lies ahead.

City officials have also invested time and nearly $4.8 million into easing the homelessness and housing crisis, noted Hale. In October 2020, the city launched a safe RV parking program, near where the navigation center will sit, which promised to provide parking and amenities to RV dwellers who agreed to pursue more permanent housing options. About half of those participating in the program are on their way to permanent housing, Hale said.


“What we know is that the ultimate solution to housing is to simply get people housed,” Hale said. “It really takes us all together to get the job done.”

Ending homelessness

County officials have deemed 2022 “the year we end homelessness together” after previously committing to a goal of “functional zero homelessness,” meaning homelessness would be rare, brief and never chronic.


Callagy listed a number of community partners who have been integral in achieving those goals, including LifeMoves, a housing nonprofit that’s been tapped to operate the navigation center, Samaritan House, a service provider combating food and housing insecurity, and WeHOPE, a mobile homelessness service provider offering access to showers and laundry services.


Echoing Hale, LifeMoves CEO Aubrey Merriman said collaboration is key for getting facilities off the ground and running efficiently. The organization leads its own outreach and homelessness prevention program and, once the center is open, LifeMoves will also provide addiction services, job and housing assistance and mental health care.


Recognizing the massive need for support across the county, Merriman also emphasized the need to continue pursuing more temporary and permanent housing solutions, and committed to continuing to be a partner in the fight.


“The streets and the encampments can no longer be the waiting rooms. We need to have flexible, quick and cost efficient interim solutions that move people off the streets sooner,” Merriman said.

Both goals have also been propelled in part by more state Homekey funding. Including the navigation center funding, the county has received about $120 million through the program with additional dollars going toward helping the county purchase five hotels in San Mateo, Redwood City and along the coast. Officials are interested in establishing another center in the north as well.


Callagy acknowledged that some will be resistant to entering into services but some officials have suggested that people will be enticed by the promise of privacy. And regardless of whether the offer is taken up, Callagy said the resources should still be available.

Longtime vision

Board President Don Horsley and Supervisor Carole Groom envisioned building a 300-bedroom navigation center 12 years ago and have been looking for a space for it ever since, Groom said. Horsley said the county has visited numerous sites in the past but have been met with neighborhood opposition along the way.

Officials were met with some opposition around the land swap negotiations with some arguing the facility should not be placed near a raw materials process plant in the area while also advocating for the space to be used for a community park.


Heeding community concerns, the area is poised to welcome additional housing, including a future affordable housing project backed by the county, as well as 10 acres of land to be developed into open recreational space.


With a lot secured and work beginning, Groom and Horsley shared pride in the county’s pursuit of the center and the strong energy to get it built quickly and opened to those who need it by the end of the year.

“People don’t want to be homeless. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to lose their house. They want to contribute, raise their family and go about their business,” Groom said. “But when something horrible happens … they should have a place to go to restore and renovate their lives.”