Richmond Planning Commission continues debate on 37th Street emergency homeless shelter

Richmond Planning Commission continues debate on 37th Street emergency homeless shelter
Neighbors have opposed converting an office building at 207 37th St. into an emergency homeless shelter. Photo/Linda Hemmila

After a testy hearing Thursday night, the Richmond Planning Commission continued a discussion on a proposed emergency homeless shelter on the corner of 37th Street and Bissell Avenue.

The applicant, Gregory VanMechelen, was at the planning commission to request a conditional use permit to convert an existing office building into an emergency shelter at 207 37th Street, formerly the home of Community Health for Asian Americans.

Continuing the hearing would allow planning staff to work to address issues with the applicant and the neighborhood.

The proposed facility would provide housing and minimal supportive services, including a therapist and vocational, occupational, and related services. The shelter facility would include seven rooms, including six dorm-style rooms, restrooms, an entertainment room, a dining hall, an office area for management staff, and a rear courtyard area.

Residents would be allowed to stay at the facility for six months. Exterior improvements to the site include adding windows at the rear of the building to comply with building codes for the new occupancy type. 

Neighbors said the previous shelter was unpermitted, and they were negatively affected when a homeless shelter operated out of the building. 

Lina Velasco, Richmond’s Community Development Director, said city staff found a business license for the shelter; however, the office building was never officially converted for housing or emergency sheltering under the building and fire codes.

“It did come up later on after we placed people into housing in the building that, under the fire code and the building code, it hadn’t been properly permitted,” Velasco said. “Building permits would have to be obtained to upgrade the building to meet the requirements.”

Lonnie Holmes, CEO of California Portsmouth Square Association, was at the meeting to address neighbors' concerns, explaining that the shelter started as a result of the Castro Encampment, which had been a problem for the city for years.

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“They had closed it, and they needed someplace to place those individuals out of the Castro encampment,” Holmes said.

The City of Richmond contracted with Way 2 Love as the Castro Encampment Resolution Project Project Manager and housing navigator, Housing Consortium of the East Bay.

“What they indicated, and stated emphatically, was that everyone was to have an individual lease,” Holmes said. “Those individual leases basically put us in a situation where we were essentially just landlords.”

Lonnie Holmes, CEO of California Portsmouth Square Association, speaks about the homeless shelter project at the Richmond Planning Commission on June 6, 2024.

Holmes said services were provided by Ways 2 Love, HCEB, and Safe Organized Spaces Richmond, and contrary to popular belief, his organization didn’t make any money on the shelter.

“We were relegated to being landlords. We did what we needed to do in terms of making sure the building was clean,” Holmes said.

Moving forward, Holmes wants to contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and county probation so their probation officer or parole agent can supervise residents. 

“Obviously, there is a race issue here with individuals that look like me that were occupying the shelter,” Holmes said.

Roxanna Molina, who owns the home next door to the building, said she and her neighbors were woken up by fights and screaming at all hours of the night and witnessed prostitution, drug dealing, and property crimes while the shelter was active.

“They already used this property as a shelter before without any permit, without any community input at all. We were put under severe circumstances, including our young children on our block. They were abused by all these people that were coming in,” Molina said at the meeting. “We have no safety, we have no protection even though we pay taxes to protect ourselves and have a peaceful neighborhood to live in.”

Ronald Sanchez, a neighbor, also didn’t want a shelter in front of his house and said he had to call the police almost every day because of fights. 

“There was a shelter a year ago. It was too much for me, my family, and our neighborhood,” Sanchez said.

Both the shelter applicant and neighbors who opposed the project exchanged heated words, and at one point, the commission chair threatened to stop the meeting if the audience couldn't refrain from arguing.

Audience members exchange words during the Richmond Planning Commission on June 6, 2024.

City Attorney Pam Lee said that because the decision will likely be appealed, the commission has to look at all the options concerning what we can do to ensure that the project has the least impact on the community. 

I believe we do have enough information and direction from the commission to provide additional information and conditions and discuss with the applicant what the options are,” Lee said.

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