Humane Ways to Address Homelessness in San Jose, Santa Clara County

Every two years, Santa Clara County does a Homeless Census and Survey to receive federal homeless funding. The most recent survey, conducted in January 2013, shows an increase in homelessness, as more and more people are setting up encampments in San Jose. Below are some of the key findings and possible steps San Jose and Santa Clara County can take to address the issue in a more humane way.

Santa Clara County had 7,631 homeless individuals as of January 2013, an increase of 564 (8 percent) from the 2011 survey.

Unsheltered homeless individuals accounted for 74 percent, or 5,674, an increase of 507 people compared to 2011. The largest increase was seen in people living in homeless encampments, up from 34 percent in 2011 to 42 percent this year. Vehicles, unoccupied buildings, structures not meant for habitation, and motels all decreased.

The number of people in shelters and transitional housing increased by just 59 people since 2011, while the percentage of homeless families bumped from 12 to 14 percent.

It is estimated that 71 percent of homeless lived in San Jose prio to becoming homeless, while 15 percent lived somehwere in Santa Clara county, 8 percent lived in other California counties and 7 percent lived outside of California before coming to San Jose. An unusually high 29 percent of San Jose’s homeless were not prior residents. Instead they moved to San Jose.

The question is why.

San Jose disproportionally provides housing and has more homeless, which—with lower per capita tax revenues—contributes to city budget deficits, lower city services and decreases quality of life. Meanwhile, wealthier tax revenue counties and cities and their businesses avoid housing and homeless public costs.

Homelessness is a community problem that San Jose, and Santa Clara County government and nonprofits cannot or should not be expected to solve by themselves.

We are all affected by the homeless problem either directly or indirectly, with increases in government costs needed to reduce and treat the homeless population. Silicon Valley is known for innovative solutions.

Here are a few ideas that can start a community conversation to develop and apply innovation to reducing homelessness.

1. Most approaches to dealing with the homeless involve trying to move them out of the illegal encampments they are living in rather than providing “urban camping” areas that have toilets, sanitation, dumpsters, access to social and medical services, and improved individual safety where people can live temporarily until they are able to find housing.

San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Santa Clara County spend millions each year moving the homeless out of illegal encampments, only to do it over and over again, month after month. Establishing multiple urban camping areas throughout the county is the best interim solution, if done right, and is better than current illegal encampments. This has been done both successfully and unsuccessfully in other cities, so the best practices will have to be used and modified as needed to be successful.

2. There is a great need for small, low-cost, effective first-step transitional housing units with services. The Sacramento Safe Ground nonprofit is partnering with community groups like Loaves & Fishes, Sacramento Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity to create regional solutions, where unsheltered homeless adults sign covenants to be alcohol-, drug- and violence-free, and occupy individual small sleeping cabins for privacy and dignity. Each cabin will have solar power and house one or two adults.

3. Re-entry parolees, newly released ex-offenders and Megan’s list sexual offenders—based on a California Department of Corrections study of major urban areas—have as high as 30 to 50 percent homeless rates. Homelessness is common among parolees since they have little or no income, and their criminal records make it difficult to obtain housing, especially in an expensive housing market. Research shows that individuals who maintain contact with supportive family or friends have stable housing and employment when they return to their community.

4. Many homeless cannot live in homeless shelters, transitional housing or assisted housing, because their behavior violates drug and alcohol abuse rules or their mental illness disturbs others. They are often evicted and denied future housing, so they live in cars, RVs and outdoors, subjecting them to crime, medical issues and other problems.

Our community needs to develop transitional or permanent housing solutions, as 21 percent of the homeless became so with drug and alcohol problems and 22 percent had mental-health issues, based on the 2013 survey. This is better than having them continue to be homeless, which is a significant problem that has not been successfully addressed.

If solving the homeless issue was easy, it would have been solved years ago. Each person is different and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

If you have better community solutions to reduce homelessness that are legal, reasonable, humane and cost-effective, please offer them.

Ed Rast is an United Neighborhood’s member. He served on the 2005 Santa Clara County task Force to End Homelessness.

8 Comments

  1. Ed – I’d love to talk with you more about this and I agree with you wholeheartedly about the complexity of the crisis.

    Two years ago our community came together to implement a regional housing campaign called Housing 1000 – and since then over 400 chronically homeless men and women (and their children) have been housed throughout our county.  We know that while the majority of homeless folks in our community are unsheltered, 93% of them say that if a home was available to them they would happily accept it. You can learn more about the campaign at http://www.housing1000sv.org

    Tent cities are a costly band aid that would divert hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of precious dollars that could be used for housing subsidies/units to create a “sanctioned” encampment, where folks will still be living outdoors, still waiting to end their homelessness.

    I much prefer we advocate for a permanent end to homelessness through short and long term subsidies and ongoing development of affordable housing. 

    Jennifer Loving
    Destination: Home

    • Ed, you’re on the right track about if solving the homeless issue was easy, it would have been solved years ago. Each person is different and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work is absolutely true. Jennifer-Destination Home is only commenting because you have come out infringing on their chronic homeless dollars and they don’t want anyone with new ideas in the way of their internal jobs program. They’ll do anything to keep you from spreading your ideas. The so called 400 housed individuals across the county are not a result of their direct housing dollar allocations but rather it’s just the combined numbers of many different agencies reporting what happens normally every year. It’s a well known fact that their money cannot be tied directly to these housed individuals but no one dares ask these hard questions. It’s pretty bold to use other agency numbers like Sacred Heart, Salvation Army, EHC, InnVision, Sunnyvale Community center and many more and then turn around and say they are Housing 1000 placement dollars. It’s simply not true, and again I’d ask for an audit to clearly account for all the money they’ve been granted and compare that to the numbers they’ve actually housed. Destination Home isn’t a corporate entity and if they were any reputable nonprofit then the IRS would want to know when any legitimate 501c3 who is aligning and advertising for politics, as they do on their website. Shame on you Jennifer and your public private partnership scheme!

      ED, thanks for thinking outside the box. Please contact HOP-Housing for Outdoor People, a legitimate 501c3 in San Jose who are really big advocates of urban camping and can help get this concept moving forward.

      • The best thing for the homeless is the lifeline program in my opinion. Its easy to get a phone if you sign up. Jobs for unemployed are swaying online, homeless are left int he dark. Everyone gets their employment online(Well not every one but you get the point). Government assistance in now available for broadband highspeed internet usage. The life line program has adapted to the new technological advances of our time. Spread the word you could help out someone in need! Source: http://www.reach-out-wireless.com

  2. So, what is the problem?

    Is it a lack of real estate and houses “houses”?

      —multiple urban camping areas
      — small, low-cost, effective first-step transitional housing units with services

    Or, is it destructive, anti-social behavior?

      —improved individual safety
      —sign covenants to be alcohol-, drug- and violence-free,
      —Re-entry parolees, newly released ex-offenders and Megan’s list sexual offenders
      —behavior violates drug and alcohol abuse rules or
      —their mental illness disturbs others.

    If the problem is just lack of “houses”, there are plenty of unused government-owned FEMA trailers in New Orleans, and zillions of government owned re-possessed housing units all over the landscape.

    “Homelessness” is NOT a real estate problem.

    It’s a BEHAVIOR problem.

    And a big part of the behavioral problem is the wrong-headedness, ignorance, and stupidity of so-called “activists” who perpetually solve the wrong problem just so they can feel like they are “doing something”.

  3. Hi Ed, it’s been a while since the 2010 WGNA candidate forum.

    This is one of the first perspectives on homelessness that I’ve seen on this site that I agree with wholeheartedly. 

    I think there’s another side to this that needs to be explored however.  “The best social program is a job”  a great man once said.  I think if we’re going to establish “urban camping” centers as described, they need to be cost neutral to the taxpayers.  The best way that I can think of doing that is by giving these folks some sort of job they can take pride in.  Maybe raking leaves, pruning roses, anything to give them a sense of accomplishment and pride.

  4. Give them each $100, a brown-bag lunch, a bottle of Chimay, and a one-way bus ticket to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Problem solved!

    NIMBY’ism is a alive and well!! wink

  5. There is no humane way to address homelessness that doesn’t involve lots of money.

    It’s like having a relative that continuously asks for money.  You have no expectation of ever being repaid, and eventually you have to say no.  When you do say no, you wonder if you would have ended up in the same place if you had said no to the very first request.

    • S randall, you say it right! taking your analogy a bit further, look what happened to Berkeley and San Francisco, their streets are covered in bums and various other human detritus, most are mentally ill or only spend their money on alcohol and cigarettes. They use the sidewalk, BART escalators, and doorways as their toilets. This makes it a very disagreeable experience for those of us to walk there who actually work hard and do make an honest living. Why are there so many of these rascals in these cities? because they are the relative who just keeps on giving them money! I propose San Jose adopt the Albany Solution: “encourage” all of them to move, and concentrate in one far off location. Out of site, out of mind. In Albany, go to their Waterfront Park and walk to the end of what they call “The Knob” (an old garbage dump), and you will be in the middle of a homeless city. Hundreds upon hundreds have made their home here for the past decades. They have built homes, added furniture, etc.. sort of like “The Jungle” in San Jose except cleaner and of a “higher order”. The City of Albany is happy with it, the homeless are happy with it. Everyone is happy. It is funny to walk in this park in the evenings, around 6p. This is what is referred to as “the homeless commute”, all of the riff-raff shuffle back to their homes carrying all the goodies they managed to beg, borrow, and steal, while standing at the Richmond, Albany, and El Cerrito freeway off-ramps. It is literally a parade. In the morning it is the same, just reverse, they take their same postings. But, unlike in SF and Berkeley, these folks do not bother anyone.

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