On a sunny summer day, 61-year-old Brigitte Barron parked her Toyota 4Runner under a tree at Greer Park in Palo Alto. The trunk is packed to the brim with Barron's belongings. Her two service dogs, Dolce and Gabbana, let out shrill yips anytime another creature strolls by.
Just five months earlier, she was living in a coveted unit at LifeMoves Mountain View, an interim shelter program that aims to get clients housed in three to four months. But Barron never found stable housing while staying at LifeMoves. She eventually left the program and went back to sleeping in her car.
When LifeMoves Mountain View opened in 2021, it was a monumental milestone for the Menlo Park-based nonprofit: The site's 100 modular units were built from the ground up and launched in less than a year. The program has the capacity to serve 124 people, making it one of LifeMoves' largest shelters. The nonprofit operates more than a dozen programs across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including Haven Family House in Menlo Park, the Opportunity Services Center in Palo Alto and the Redwood Family House in Redwood City.
"I would say that there's a lot of excitement and pride within the city about how quickly this was rolled out," former Mountain View City Council member Sally Lieber told this news organization.
The speed at which the modular project got people off the street and into shelter beds caught Gov. Gavin Newsom's eye: He called for the model to be replicated across the state. In addition to the interim shelter, the LifeMoves Mountain View model promises its residents case management and customized support to find housing.
But after interviewing more than 15 former and current residents, as well as reviewing Mountain View city staff emails, court documents, police reports and program exit data, this news organization found that LifeMoves Mountain View struggles to keep its promises. Former staff and homeless residents, referred to as clients, say the program's opening was rushed, with LifeMoves opening before a director was in place and failing to hire enough case managers. Multiple clients said they never received specialized support in their search for housing, their grievances went unheard, and that conflict was mishandled by both program directors and staff.
LifeMoves has partnered with the cities of Palo Alto and San Jose to build two more sites emulating Mountain View's. Yet, according to county data, the program is far from living up to the expectations heralded at its opening: LifeMoves Mountain View places clients in permanent housing at a significantly lower rate than other interim shelter programs in the county, ranking close to the bottom.
'Housing is a partnership'
The majority of LifeMoves' shelters along the Peninsula and in the South Bay cater to specific populations, like veterans or single women. But the Mountain View program serves a range of clients with unique needs, from seniors living on fixed incomes and teenagers in high school, to single parents with young children, domestic violence survivors and adult couples who have lost their jobs and homes.
Located at 2566 Leghorn St., the site was made possible by a $14.4 million Homekey grant, a state program launched during the COVID-19 pandemic that provides funds to local public agencies to buy hotels and other properties to house people experiencing homelessness. Between land acquisition and construction, the project cost $25 million. The Mountain View program offers clients a private room and supportive services to help them secure permanent housing in just three to four months. LifeMoves said there's an option for residents to extend their stay by two weeks at a time if they don't find housing after four months.
A key piece of the model is meeting with a housing specialist provided by LifeMoves, who has the training and resources to help clients find homes. But out of the 18 clients this news organization interviewed, the majority said they did not meet with a housing specialist and most did not find housing with the help of the program.
Barron said it took two months for a housing specialist to give her a call when she was at LifeMoves Mountain View.
"Most of (the apartments), the waiting list was closed or was too expensive," Barron said of those that the housing specialist suggested.
When she was interviewed last July, Barron was back to sleeping in her car after living at the site for four months – and she wasn't the only one. At least six clients reporters spoke to were living in vehicles after participating in the program.
When asked why some clients never get to see a housing specialist, LifeMoves Vice President Brian Greenberg said that not every client is ready to see one when they enter the program. He said that every client is assigned a case manager, but housing specialists are only called in when a client is ready.
"Nothing makes us happier than if someone comes in one day, and a few days later they have the wherewithal and the access to resources to get into housing," Greenberg said. "If it was a simple thing, there wouldn't be that challenge. So I can't address individual complaints, but getting people housing is a partnership, and we do our best to hold up our end of the partnership."
Caroline Mathangani, who moved into LifeMoves in February 2022, said her case manager repeatedly suggested she apply to apartments she knew she wouldn't qualify for because at the time, Mathangani didn't have a credit score or recent pay stubs.
Mathangani left LifeMoves Mountain View after receiving a notice that her time was up. She said she didn't bother filing an extension after being asked to leave.
"I felt like my case manager was betraying me," she said. "She had made me a promise and said, 'I'm not going to ask you to leave until we figure this out.'"
Clients are asked to fill out extension forms every two weeks and document what they're doing to work toward housing. According to LifeMoves leadership, the extensions are almost always granted if the resident is safe in the facility and working toward securing stable housing.
After moving in, each person receives a customized plan from a case manager that establishes goals and tasks for housing, employment, finance, health and education, according to a sample case plan the organization shared. Case managers are there to help connect clients with resources and get them closer to securing permanent housing, as well as give referrals to the housing specialists.
Former client Lily moved into LifeMoves in January 2022. She said shortly into her stay her case manager quit, leaving her without any case management services for about a month.
"They're supposed to be helping people find housing," Lily said. "I was there for over three months and I never saw a housing specialist. Never once did I get an appointment with one. I emailed, and I called, and I did everything I could to get in contact."
When she left the program in April, she wrote an email to her case manager that she shared with this news organization, stating that she did not receive any support to find housing in the three months she was there. She said she never received a response from LifeMoves.
Reporters agreed to use a pseudonym for Lily, a request made by many of the clients interviewed. Sources who are referred to by a first name only in this story, unless otherwise stated, are using a pseudonym.
Emmanuel, a teenager and former LifeMoves Mountain View client, said his experience was positive when he first arrived at the shelter. He quickly made a few friends and grew close to his case manager.
"(She) was the best kid case manager I've had," said Emmanuel. "She was really outgoing. She made all the kids feel like that was their home. She had a lot of activities during the holidays and everything."
But Emmanuel said his case manager eventually told him she was quitting because she had too much on her plate.
"When she quit, none of the kids had anybody for a while," Emmanuel said.
Greenberg acknowledged staffing is a challenge for LifeMoves, as is the case at many homeless services organizations.
"People can't afford to live on the Peninsula or in Silicon Valley," he said. "We have staff coming in from Manteca and Livermore and south of Gilroy, all over the East Bay."
Greenberg said the organization aims to employ one case manager for every 17 single adults living at the site. For families, the goal is about 12 to 14 families per case manager. There's also a children-focused case manager, housing specialists, benefits specialists and vocational specialists employed by LifeMoves, as well as a full-time licensed vocational nurse on site. If clients aren't already connected with mental health care in the community, they can access care on site through graduate-level interns pursuing degrees in psychology or social work, Greenberg said.
Former LifeMoves case manager Grace, whose name this news organization agreed to change for this story, said in an interview that she and other staff members were often overwhelmed by their caseloads.
"We needed to have at least one or two, maybe three additional case managers on site," Grace said.
Patterns of mismanagement alleged
Greenberg said that, staffing challenges aside, anyone hired at LifeMoves goes through "intensive onboarding regarding agency policy, boundaries, professionalism (and) de-escalation."
Grace said she received substantial training when she started at LifeMoves. But she found there was a disconnect between the training she received and the level of support required to implement it. When case managers needed to make referrals for their clients, for instance, Grace said it was unclear what support and resources staff had at their disposal.
"That's probably where my disappointment came in," Grace said. "LifeMoves has been around for a while, and they've got many shelters and many sites and they're out there doing a lot of different things, but I guess it just seemed to be that each site kind of operated on its own."
Valentina Carrion, 44, who lived at LifeMoves from October 2021 to August 2022, said staffers were unequipped to handle the needs of their clients.
"I would make all the staff members have some kind of background or classes on mental illness," Carrion said, when asked what she would change about LifeMoves. "A lot of the mental illnesses were just thought of as people being lazy. … When you're homeless, you're going to have mental illnesses; you're going to have things because of trauma that you've experienced."
Despite staff receiving de-escalation training, multiple current and former clients told this news organization that they got into altercations with staff, some of which turned physical. One former client said he was physically assaulted by LifeMoves Mountain View's first program director in December 2021. Court records corroborate his allegations. In June 2022, the district attorney charged the former director on suspicion of misdemeanor battery. There's an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office for the former director.
Citing confidentiality, Greenberg said in an interview that he could not comment on internal personnel matters but confirmed that the program's first director is no longer working for LifeMoves.
Multiple clients also trace their issues with the program back to the second director who took over after the first left.
Former client Lily said three men living at the site repeatedly sexually harassed her and that the harassers were permitted to stay in the program even after she brought it to the second program director's attention.
"I don't feel safe," Lily wrote in an April 2022 email to her case manager, which she showed this news organization. "My interactions have ranged from inappropriate comments from intoxicated men to one of them kissing me without consent."
LifeMoves Mountain View's community guidelines include a section outlining grounds for immediate discharge from the program. Included in that list, in bold and underlined letters, is "absolutely no sexual harassment."
When asked whether he knew of any unchecked sexual harassment cases at LifeMoves, Greenberg said he had not been made aware of any complaints.
Lily said she filed multiple written grievances with the program director at the time.
"She said she would take care of it; it started up again; and that was kind of the theme," Lily said. "She would talk to them and they would leave me alone for a few days, and then we'd be right back to where we started."
One of Lily's most persistent harassers was a client struggling with sobriety. The director told her she couldn't remove him from the program until he got his substance abuse issues under control, Lily said.
Greenberg confirmed in an interview in November that this director was also no longer with the LifeMoves Mountain View program, and instead was operating LifeMoves' Safe and Supportive Parking Program in Redwood City. He declined to comment on why and when she left the Mountain View program.
"We do tend to rotate around program directors," Greenberg said.
The former director did not respond to multiple attempts to contact her for comment and on Feb. 7, reporters received an automatic response from a LifeMoves email account stating that she was no longer with the nonprofit. LifeMoves Mountain View is currently on its third program director since opening nearly two years ago.
One model doesn't fit all
Adult residents in the program each live in their own unit, measuring 80 to 100 square feet, with 80 rooms for individuals and eight for couples. The rooms are just long enough to fit a bed with storage space underneath, as well as a desk and chair. They each have air conditioning, electricity, a window and a door with a lock.
A walkway through the adult units is dotted with bright planters filled with artificial flowers and leads to a communal area on the 1-acre site where clients are served three meals daily. Residents have access to an outdoor dining area, food storage, laundry machines, bathrooms and showers, a community room where classes are hosted, dog kennels, bike storage and supportive services offices.
There are 12 family units between the common area and Leghorn Street, each with its own bathroom. There's also a community room and a green-and-blue playground for children in this gated portion of the complex.
For those living in single or couple units, there are a handful of communal bathrooms and showers located in the common area, which the majority of clients said are dirty and a health hazard.
A current LifeMoves resident said they haven't showered at the site in half a year. Instead, they joined the Palo Alto Family YMCA for access to clean showers because they said the floor next to the showers at LifeMoves Mountain View were frequently flooded and that the curtains were often moldy.
Former client Lily reported to her case manager in an April 2022 email that bathrooms are frequently filthy.
"The restrooms are disgusting, often smeared with feces, and urine is all over the toilets and floor," Lily's email reads. "I genuinely feel safer and cleaner in my car on the street."
When asked about the state of the bathrooms, LifeMoves said that "the facility does house clients with serious mental illness, who occasionally present challenges to shower and toilet facilities," adding that the organization "relies on both a professional janitorial service and client chores to keep bathrooms clean."
Homeless advocate Malia Pires from Reach Potential Movement said that, from her experience working with Mountain View's unhoused community, transitional housing programs like LifeMoves can be "a hard sell" for people who are used to controlling their own environment.
"They're downsizing, if they're living in an RV, into a smaller unit," Pires said of the LifeMoves program. "A big one that we hear, a reason people don't want to move into the program, is because they really want to be able to make their own food and have a greater measure of independence. And so they feel like they're going to be losing some of that if they move into the program."
In addition to being assigned chores like cleaning bathrooms, clients must adhere to strict rules, including a nightly curfew, no visitors permitted in their rooms, and only using plastic utensils during meals.
When commenting on LifeMoves Mountain View's approach to client safety, Greenberg said that the program caters to many different types of people.
"They're co-ed environments," Greenberg said. "The people that come in are frequently fragile, and as you can imagine, traumatized by years on the street."
For this reason, Greenberg said, certain rules must be in place and apply to everyone to ensure the facility is "completely safe for the most vulnerable residents at all times."
But for current client George, those rules make him feel stereotyped, as if being unhoused means he is "a violent criminal or a drug addict or capable of a suicide." But he said he follows the rules closely to keep a roof over his head.
"The way the rules are set up, I would characterize my being here less as a client and more of an inmate," George said.
Income, a pivotal factor for success
Grace said some of her clients, especially those who had jobs, were able to find housing with the help of LifeMoves.
She said one client found part-time work at a Ross department store down the street from the site after being laid off. She started contributing to the housing fund LifeMoves maintained for her. Eventually, she got hired back at her old job and saved up enough to find permanent housing.
Carolyn, a former client, started her stay at LifeMoves in November 2021. She said LifeMoves gave her and her children a safe place after they escaped domestic violence.
When she came to the shelter, Carolyn said she already had a job and a good credit score. She just needed help finding housing she could afford as a single mom, with enough space to accommodate her kids.
Carolyn benefited from mental health therapy while she was at LifeMoves, which she called "the best I've ever received." She had a case manager as well as a housing specialist, whom she met with on a weekly basis and ended up helping her find the apartment she still lives in today.
"At times I felt like giving up," Carolyn said, who described sometimes seeing 20 apartments in one weekend. But having a housing specialist in her corner made it a lot easier.
"Feeling empowered and just having somebody guide you through all of this when you've never had to do it yourself, it really helped me not be so overwhelmed," she said.
But Carolyn said her stable job and a good credit score were also pivotal factors to finding housing.
"Some people don't have that," Carolyn said. "(LifeMoves) can't turn your world or remove your trauma. They just provide the resources and you do what you can with them."
Greenberg acknowledged that when a client is dealing with underlying challenges, like poverty, trauma or mental health issues, it can be harder for them to find success with the program. But, he maintained, "We want to get people housed as quickly as possible, regardless of the challenges."
Yet Grace said sometimes those barriers become so high that they're insurmountable.
People need a stable income and savings to be approved for most housing, she said. But some clients may not physically be able to work. Others face mental health challenges that prevent them from holding down jobs, or are too elderly to work. Others are at risk of losing their Social Security benefits if their income gets too high.
"Three-to-four-months, tops, is the goal for people to come in, kind of get settled, get situated, save their money," Grace said. "But the reality is not every client is going to fit that mold."
By the numbers
While some residents are able to meet the goals of the program, the data shows that a majority of clients leave LifeMoves Mountain View without finding stable housing. Exactly how many is unclear because data provided by LifeMoves is not consistent with Santa Clara County data.
According to LifeMoves, out of 219 clients who exited the program, 95 individuals, or about 43%, transitioned into stable housing between the site's opening in May 2021 and the end of June 2022.
Data provided by Santa Clara County showed 281 clients exited the program between its opening and September 2022, and that only 73 individuals, or 26%, were placed in permanent housing.
LifeMoves attributes this discrepancy to differences in how the county and the nonprofit categorize their data and define stable housing, as well as the county data representing a slightly longer time frame. LifeMoves Director of Community Engagement & Public Affairs Ben Biscocho said some housing situations that are considered a "temporary destination" by the county may be considered "stable" by LifeMoves, such as people who stay with family or friends or go into residential treatment programs.
"Although temporary, these exits reflect clients working towards stability through reconnecting with loved ones and sobriety, among other things," Biscocho said.
LifeMoves leadership added that across its 26 locations in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, families generally have a higher success rate in getting housed than single adults or couples. They said that "82% of our families and 65% of all clients engaged in supportive services" found stable housing but declined to specify how many people participated in those services. LifeMoves said it served over 7,000 clients in the 2021-22 fiscal year, agency-wide.
When asked for a data breakdown for families versus singles adults or couples at the Mountain View site specifically, the organization would not provide it for this story.
Data discrepancies aside, the county's numbers also show that LifeMoves Mountain View's rate of getting clients into stable housing is significantly lower than similar programs in Santa Clara County.
At 26%, LifeMoves has the second lowest rate of individuals who exit to permanent housing out of eight non-congregate shelters identified in the county's dataset, which included Santa Clara County programs that utilize "tiny homes or similar models," such as converted hotels. The six shelters ahead of LifeMoves range from 41% to 70% of clients moving into permanent housing. The only program that performed below LifeMoves Mountain View in the county's dataset is the HomeFirst Bridge Housing Community program on Felipe Avenue in San Jose, with 24% of clients exiting into permanent housing.
When asked about LifeMoves' relatively low success rate compared with other county programs, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said it's "awfully tough to compare and contrast different shelters with different models and different populations in different communities."
"It's hard to make that apples-to-apples comparison," he said.
According to public records obtained by this news organization from the city of Mountain View, LifeMoves leadership is aware that the site's rate of getting clients into permanent housing is low. In an internal email, LifeMoves CEO Aubrey Merriman acknowledged concerns about how the Mountain View site was performing. That email was eventually forwarded to city staff, making it a public record.
After receiving an email last May from a Mercury News reporter inquiring about LifeMoves' exit data and asking to interview program participants, CEO Merriman forwarded the email to LifeMoves leadership, warning that "there is always a risk involved when you put a microphone in front of a client," and that there was "additional risk that our Mountain View exit statistics might be a little underwhelming given the excitement and expectations attached to the site when it first opened."
Merriman wrote, "I wouldn't be surprised if the subtle angle here is that (with) all this buzz about these modular projects the outcomes aren't dramatically better," adding, "I'm speculating here."
Merriman did not agree to be interviewed for this story, despite more than a dozen requests made over the course of three months.
What comes next
Shortly after the Mountain View site opened in 2021, Merriman said the nonprofit's long term vision is to have 10 interim shelter sites across the Bay Area, with an ultimate goal of solving the region's homelessness crisis. The nonprofit created a playbook that outlines how it developed and built LifeMoves Mountain View, and how other jurisdictions can do the same in their communities.
LifeMoves currently plans to open at least three more interim modular shelters modeled after the Mountain View site. The nonprofit has partnered with the cities of Palo Alto and San Jose, with plans to use $78.1 million in Homekey funds this year to build two more interim housing communities, totaling 292 units.
LifeMoves leadership told this news organization that one lesson they've learned from the Mountain View site is that it's better to build up: The organization is planning a three-story shelter in Palo Alto, leaving more open space for residents, whereas the Mountain View shelter is constructed as a single-story facility. Though the shelter was initially estimated to cost around $17.6 million, that figure has incrementally increased, most recently to about $32 million for construction alone.
LifeMoves, the city of Redwood City and San Mateo County are also close to completing a 240-unit, modular, multi-story navigation center on 2.5 acres of land that broke ground last April. The project received $55.3 million in Homekey funds from the state.
Santa Clara County and LifeMoves are also proposing an interim shelter site using Homekey funds in the city of Santa Clara. That project is still going through the public input process and hasn't been approved yet.
Meanwhile, Mountain View and Santa Clara County continue to fund the existing LifeMoves Mountain View program, each pledging $2.4 million for operational costs over the next two years.
Former case manager Grace said the lack of affordable housing in Mountain View and the greater Bay Area was a major hurdle to her ability to help clients succeed. For clients who were unemployed, she cobbled together various forms of financial aid so they could qualify for the few affordable units available. And even those who worked full time jobs struggled to make enough to afford a place of their own.
"For a lot of clients that were coming in, I think for many of them, they probably just had these expectations that, 'Oh well, there's already housing already set up. And I'll just be here for a little bit. And then from there, they're going to recommend me to whatever affordable housing situation is out there,'" Grace said.
Vice President Greenberg emphasized that LifeMoves is a "housing-first" model, and the goals that clients are given reflect that overarching objective. In a sample case plan that LifeMoves shared, the first bullet point atop a list of 12 distinct goals is "Client will obtain stable housing."
But out of the 18 clients who were interviewed for this story, the majority were unable to meet that goal. At the time of publishing, reporters could only confirm one client who became housed with the help of LifeMoves. Some are still participating in the program. Others found a home on their own after leaving.
Among them is Mathangani, who lives in a room in a shared house in Santa Clara that she found herself. Lily said she had to move out of state to use a housing voucher that she secured on her own. And when reporters last spoke to Barron, she and her protective pups were still living in their packed SUV.
This is a multi-part series. In the next installment, reporters investigate the barriers that make it challenging for programs like LifeMoves Mountain View to get clients housed, and what experts say are the best solutions.