MILLBRAE -- When the pandemic hit, the state began placing homeless people in unused hotels under a program called Project Homekey. The program still exists as one of the state options to create transitional housing but a plan to purchase a hotel in Millbrae for that purpose has raised the ire of many residents.
The La Quinta hotel on El Camino Real serves travelers arriving at nearby SFO. Owners say it's no longer a profitable enterprise and there is a plan to sell it to San Mateo County for use as permanent housing -- part of an initiative called "Functional Zero Homelessness." County executive officer Mike Callagy sprang the idea on the community at Tuesday's council meeting.
"We need to offer people the dignity and respect of having their own doorbell, their own doorknob, their own roof over their head, their own opportunity to take a shower in private. That's why we started buying hotels," Callagy said. "You have wrap-around services, they will have leases, they will be permanent residents. They will be shopping here, they will be working here, they will be part of the community here."
Angered that the county never consulted them, city leaders and community members protested outside the hotel on Friday.
"Millbrae has, for so many decades, been silent about what outsiders do to us!" said Mayor Ann Schneider.
Paul Larson owns Chapel of the Highlands funeral home across the street from the hotel and said efforts to fight poverty shouldn't end up impoverishing small communities.
"Having a way for the homeless or the people who need help to get out of that situation is good. But, at the same time, you have to look at the surrounding community. What are their needs?" Larson said.
He added that the city doesn't have any large businesses to generate tax revenues. The La Quinta is important because it charges a Transient Occupancy Tax which, all told, contributes about $600,000 per year to city coffers.
"There are other hotels too that are nearby, that are vital to the tax base of Millbrae," Larson said. "Losing a hotel in Millbrae, is almost like cutting off a finger."
Then there's the question of fairness. Millbrae city councilmember Anders Fung said the city has worked hard to decrease its unhoused population from over 100 down to about 20. Filling a 99-room hotel would mean busing in homeless residents from other cities in the county.
"We need to meet these residents where they are and we need to service and help these folks where they are," Fung said. "Functional Zero Homelessness in San Mateo County needs to start with functional zero homelessness in every city within the county."
City officials said the county has not provided any information about how soon a purchase of the hotel could happen. The county would first have to secure funding from the state's Project Homekey program.
If homelessness is a universal problem shared by every community, Millbrae says, let the responsibility of solving it be shared as well.
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