While it only applies to unincorporated areas of the county, a new law just passed by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will make it a misdemeanor to refuse shelter if you’re homeless.
San Mateo County has nowhere near the degree of homelessness of San Francisco and Oakland, and the county even declared an (unfulfilled) goal of eliminating homelessness in 2022. According to that year’s Homeless Point-In-Time Count, there were 1,800 unhoused people in the county (they did their 2024 count last week, though the results are not yet available). And the county’s recent $33 million purchase of a La Quinta Inn as a Project Homekey shelter for the homeless just survived a legal challenge.
Unlike San Francisco, San Mateo County actually has enough beds to provide shelter to those without. Of course, not everyone takes that offer. But Bay Area News Group reports that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors just passed a law making it illegal for unhoused people to refuse shelter.
Such people would not immediately be jailed, and the charge is only a misdemeanor. “There is a lot of outreach first, and a lot of work will be done by homeless outreach teams first,” San Mateo County Attorney John Nibbelin told the News Group. “You’d have a lot of contact before we reach a point where we’d have to invoke the ordinance.”
And it’s more of a “two strikes” law. That is, a person would not be charged unless they have declined shelter twice, and been issued two written warnings. San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said the goal is “not to incarcerate,” and that rather than charging people, his office would send them into what he calls a “misdemeanor diversion program.”
While this seems like a significant law, the reality is that it hardly applies to anyone. The law only affects the unincorporated parts of San Mateo County (this map shows where those areas are). And the Bay Area News Group estimates that there are only about 100 unsheltered individuals in the unincorporated areas of San Mateo County, or about 5% of the county’s overall homeless population. The rest are in cities like San Mateo itself, and subject to those cities' ordinances.
The new law will take effect at the end of February.
Image: @sanmateoco via Twitter