When Aubrey Merriman joined the nonprofit LifeMoves as its new CEO in April, he had to hit the ground running. In just three months, it was operating a homeless shelter in Half Moon Bay and shortly after opened up an interim housing facility for the homeless in Mountain View in less than a year.
The work got the attention of state officials, with Gov. Gavin Newsom visiting Mountain View to praise LifeMoves and its new approach to housing the homeless.
Merriman said he wants to keep the momentum going, laying out a path for LifeMoves to grow immensely in the coming years. His plan is a tenfold replication of the quick-turnaround housing project in Mountain View spread through the greater Bay Area, with an ultimate goal of solving the regional homeless crisis. It's going to require a surge in funding and political willpower on the part of local cities, he said, but it's no longer acceptable for Silicon Valley to have incredible wealth alongside abject poverty.
"How is it that in the richest area we can still have people who are plummeting into homelessness?" Merriman said. "We have CEOs who are building spaceships and self-driving cars, but we aren't finding a solution to end homelessness once and for all."
Merriman has spent most of his career in the nonprofit world, mostly in youth development. He served as CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of North San Mateo County, before that working in a leadership role with Special Olympics Northern California and Nevada. He said he always had an affinity for working with marginalized communities, and that the opportunity to help those grappling with housing affordability felt too important to walk away from.
LifeMoves was already growing pretty quickly when he was hired, with more than two dozen homeless housing sites in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. But new plans announced by Merriman in May call for something even more ambitious: A network of interim homeless housing projects throughout the region, each built from the ground up, with a total cost of around $250 million. The plans hinge on replicating LifeMoves Mountain View, which was built in six months and cost $25 million — a price tag that includes the cost of land and running the 100-unit facility.
The homes themselves are prefabricated, modular units that are arranged like Lego bricks onsite, making it much cheaper and quicker than traditional construction. Homeless residents are expected to stay for 90 to 120 days before landing a permanent place to live, making a critical step between being on the street and moving into an apartment.
Merriman said the Bay Area is not on pace to build enough traditional housing for all of its homeless residents, and that these interim housing projects can make a huge dent in the problem in a short amount of time. It provides those who are living in parking lots and in encampments a bed and a safe space, giving them a dignified place to live where they won't be hassled by law enforcement.
"While permanent housing is the ultimate long-term goal, it's expensive and takes years to build," he said. "We need to add capacity today. Our unhoused neighbors need to be brought indoors today. The streets can no longer be the waiting room."
In order to build out the network of homeless housing projects, Merriman said local city councils will have to keep an open mind and be willing to solve the problem locally rather than shift the problem to the next town over. His hope is that LifeMoves Mountain View will be an example for other cities, showing that interim housing can be woven into the community and blend right in, and can one day be viewed as a public resource not unlike a library or a post office.
As for the money to pay for it, Merriman said he is openly leaning on corporate sponsorship and massive tech companies in the area to pitch in, and that he cannot harbor any shame or shyness around making the big financial ask.
"Far too often public benefit corporations try to dance around that, but the situation is too dire for me to speak in code," he said. "Silicon Valley has big hearts and big wallets."
While LifeMoves has traditionally operated in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, Merriman said the organization is looking at options across all nine Bay Area counties. Possible projects even farther away would likely need to be spearheaded by another organization, he said, but LifeMoves could still provide resources to get the ball rolling.
Homelessness has been a perennial problem in the region, and it's getting worse. The latest census from 2019 found that homelessness is surging in many Bay Area counties, and that the vast majority do not have access to a homeless shelter.
Despite the daunting task, Merriman stands by his goal of eliminating homelessness, and that LifeMoves has the roadmap to get there.
"Supportive interim housing solutions can visibly and dramatically impact the homelessness crisis in much the same ways as the pandemic impacted traffic," he said. "This is part of what fuels my optimism and conviction."