San Jose Mercury News, August 13, 2020
By Marisa Kendall
‘These are the most aggressive, most comprehensive goals that we’ve ever set’
In their most ambitious effort yet to end homelessness in Santa Clara County, local leaders on Thursday unveiled a new plan to house 20,000 people in the next five years, prevent more people from ending up on the streets, and improve the quality of life in shelters and encampments.
The Community Plan to End Homelessness calls for a massive increase in the construction of new housing for homeless residents, while simultaneously reducing the number of people who end up on the streets each year by 30%. It also addresses the tent camps sprawling over sidewalks throughout the county. Local leaders intend to double the number of shelter beds, while also providing more outreach to people living outside.
“These are the most aggressive, most comprehensive goals that we’ve ever set,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of nonprofit Destination: Home, and co-chair of the steering committee that developed the plan.
Some funding to meet these goals likely will come from Measure A — the $950 million affordable housing bond Santa Clara County voters passed in 2016. The bond already has backed 27 projects, and the county intends to use that money for an additional 120 developments in the next seven years.
But Measure A alone won’t get the county to its lofty new goals.
“It’s a bold plan, and not all of the funding is there,” said Ragan Henninger, deputy director of San Jose’s housing department.
The plan will need funding from a variety of resources, including the city of San Jose, the county, private donors and possibly the state and federal government. But scraping together new funding will be harder than ever this year, as both San Jose and Santa Clara County grappled with budget deficits stemming from the coronavirus-ravaged economy.
Thursday’s plan is the second “plan to end homelessness” put forward by city, county and nonprofit partners working on the issue. The first, in 2015, called for housing 6,000 people over five years. Instead, the county housed 14,000.
But as is clear from the number of people still living in desperate straights everywhere from downtown San Jose to rural Gilroy, it wasn’t enough.
The number of homeless residents in Santa Clara County jumped from about 6,500 in 2015 to nearly 10,000 last year. For every person housed in the county, another two or three end up on the street. If that continues, another 20,000 people could fall into homelessness over the next five years — far more than the county’s supportive housing system can accommodate.
To address that problem, the new plan seeks to expand the county’s homelessness prevention program to serve 2,500 people per year. During the last fiscal year, the program — which provides rent assistance and other services to residents at risk of losing their housing — helped 1,070 people. Extra services set up to aid people who lost incomes during the pandemic served thousands of additional families.
Though the plan emphasizes the importance of permanent housing and homelessness prevention, it also places a new priority on emergency shelters. Local leaders intend to provide an extra 2,000 shelter beds in the next five years.
“It’s a dramatic shift, because this finally is a response or an approach that’s commensurate to the scale of the human need,” said Andy Gutierrez, a Santa Clara County deputy public defender and member of the public defender’s office homeless outreach team. “The size and magnitude of the need, I think, has for years demanded a more focused and intentional response.”
While the county’s “housing first” model to addressing homelessness for years has prioritized permanent housing, it has not invested as heavily in emergency shelters. That’s led to thousands of residents living in squalid conditions on the streets, under overpasses and in parks while they wait for housing to be built, Gutierrez said.
The new plan also prioritizes improving the quality of life in Santa Clara County’s homeless shelters and encampments by allowing residents to bring pets and store personal items at shelters, live in sanctioned homeless camps with access to hygiene and support services, and receive better access to housing services and support.
“A lot of people at encampments we talk to have many reasons why they will not stay at a shelter — among them the way they were treated and warehoused,” Gutierrez said. “And this plan, I think, will improve the quality of the services at the shelter, and hopefully more people will remain there and access the services.”
The plan is set to go before San Jose City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors for endorsement later this month.