We were told to brace for bad news, but it still came as a shock.
San Jose’s homeless population went from 4,350 in 2017 to 6,172 this year—a 42 percent jump. For Santa Clara County as a whole, it grew by 31 percent, from 7,394 to 9,706.
That’s according to preliminary results from the county’s latest point-in-time census, which is part of a biennial nationwide tally that helps the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) figure out how much funding to allocate to each region.
County and city officials sent those stats to HUD last month but withheld them from the public until this week, sending a jointly authored press release Thursday highlighting their varied and invariably insufficient efforts to tackle the problem.
Despite pulling 6,900 people off the streets since 2016 and despite a $950 million bond to build homes for those without, Silicon Valley’s unhoused population continues to rise.
For each person snatched from homelessness, three more joined its ranks.
This, in a region that keeps building more jobs than housing, perpetuating an imbalance that fueled this crisis. And, paradoxically, a region where—even with a vacancy rate lower than other major metro areas—tens of thousands of homes sit empty.
Mayor Sam Liccardo blamed “the economy” for pushing people out the door and NIMBYs for keeping them in the cold. “We must double down on homelessness prevention,” he urged in a prepared statement, “and, in turn, alleviate the human misery and greater public cost following an eviction notice.” (Since he brought up the subject, we should note that Liccardo recently backed a study that could undermine displacement protections under the Ellis Act, which, among other things, requires landlords who tear down a rent-controlled complex to place some of the new units under the 5 percent annual rent cap.)
County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said that although some demographics—military veterans, families—saw a decline in homelessness, the overall increase underscores the need for a “stronger and broader” approach.
“We must look to existing and new resources that can help shore up thousands of vulnerable residents of this valley before they enter this houseless cycle,” she said. “And we must double down on our focus on the chronic homeless population, which is the most visible and disruptive to our communities. … We are making progress, but we must work even harder to ensure that not another person in our county loses their most valuable resource: the roof over their heads.”
Of course, Silicon Valley’s insanely expensive housing market makes that a tough proposition. “The reasons for homelessness are many and varied,” county Supervisor Joe Simitian said. “The high cost and shortage of housing are making a bad problem worse.”
Though it’s no help to anyone on the streets right now, the county has committed $234 million of Measure A funds toward building 19 new developments slated to add a combined 1,437 housing units in the next several years. At the time of the census announcement, Supervisor Dave Cortese took questions from reporters at a 66-unit Measure A project that already fielded more than 3,500 applications in two weeks. It’s not even open, but already full. Another $25 million of the bond money is reserved to help first-time homebuyers. In addition to Measure A, the county budgeted $82 million this year for more immediate assistance through its Office of Supportive Housing.
One can only imagine what the numbers would look like without such interventions. Or if the point-in-time census were more thorough.
The survey takes place in the dead of winter, when homeless people are more likely to have found at least a temporary place to stay. It relies on shelters to self-report the number of people at each site, and on volunteers armed with clipboards to walk a given area and count people by sight before sun-up.
Volunteers led by a paid homeless guide often have to count from a distance—eyeballing the number of tents and guessing the number of people inside cars and RVs—and by a few-hour deadline that sometimes prevents them from covering all the ground in an assigned area. People hidden from view in nooks, bushes, cars or on a friend’s couch are left out. As are homeless people in jails and hospitals.
Applied Survey Research, a contractor the county hires to conduct the census, uses a multiplier to estimate how many people might be living in vehicles or under tarps. Said multiplier is based off of field research by outreach workers.
It’s a methodology that relies to no small degree on educated guesswork.
Apparently, that’s caused some confusion over the way the survey tallied one subgroup. In the breakdown of the latest numbers, there’s an asterisk by the category of “unaccompanied minors and young adults,” which shows a decline in that demographic from 1,766 in 2017 to 1,391 at the start of this year. A footnote explaining the asterisk says the decrease “is due partially to a change in methodology for counting young people.”
To Sparky Harlan—head of the Bill Wilson Center, which serves homeless youth—that 22 percent drop seems suspect. “I was surprised to see the numbers go down when referrals for our services have been going up,” she said.
In fact, it just so happened that at exactly the same time the county and city lifted an embargo on the survey numbers, Harlan was at the Santa Clara Marriott for a luncheon to raise money for her perpetually over-burdened nonprofit.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing more young people in need,” she said.
Jeff Scott, a spokesman for San Jose’s Housing Department, said a more detailed analysis of the survey coming out in June or July may add clarity about the “change in methodology” cited in that footnote. For now, he said all he knows is that Applied Survey Research counted transitional-aged youth—that is, young adults aged 18 to 21—during the afternoon. Since the rest of the population gets counted in the predawn hours, that raised concerns of double-counting. So the county and city pushed back and told Applied Survey Research to recalculate. He said he didn’t know why the survey singled out that group for afternoon counts in the first place but would circle back if he found out.
There’s plenty of data to suggest that the point-of-time count overall, and its survey of young adults in particular, vastly underestimates the number of people who experience homelessness—both locally and nationwide.
In 2015, for example, the point-in-time put the number of homeless Americans at 564,708. But that same year, the National Center for Educational Statistics pegged the number of homeless children alone at 1.3 million. Extrapolate the number of homeless parents based on that figure, and you end up in the multi-millions.
There’s a similar discrepancy in the homeless youth and young adult figures here in San Jose. According to the California State University system, more than 4,000 San Jose State students experienced homelessness in the past year. That’s just at one school, and the numbers already eclipse the countywide total reported by Applied Survey Research.
SJSU Vice President of Student Affairs Patrick Day said the upward trajectory of homelessness requires an all-hands-on-deck response. “We need to all be alarmed,” he said at the Bill Wilson Center fundraiser, where he sat at the same table as Harlan.
Certainly, the county is up against societal ills so systemic and so vast that statistics like the latest homeless count makes the crisis seem intractable. Yet Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, a nonprofit that helps the county coordinate regional homeless services, struck an optimistic tone. In Thursday’s news release, she said what the region’s already doing is working—it just needs more resources to scale it out.
“Bottom line,” she said, “homelessness is solvable.”
What’s widely considered a glaring weakness in the local strategy is a short-term fix.
Surveys conducted among the local homeless populations indicate that the main reason people lose their homes in Silicon Valley is because of relationship disruptions that force them out of one place and prohibitive rents that prevent them from finding a new one. Putting a temporary roof over their heads would go a long way in helping people regain their financial footing and save up for security deposits.
Yet the South Bay has long had one of the nation’s highest concentrations of unsheltered homeless, which means a higher rate of people living in cars, on the streets or along the riverbanks and train tracks—places unfit for human habitation. Since 2017, the county’s unsheltered population ticked up even higher, from 74 percent to 82 percent.
Meanwhile, the rate of encampment sweeps soared by more than 1,100 percent from 2013 to 2018 as homeless mortality rose by 164 percent from 2011 to last year.
Instead of ramping up resources for shelters, like San Francisco’s so-called navigation centers, to keep up with the growing numbers of people entering homelessness, local officials neutralized an effort to create a sanctioned encampment and dragged their feet on building tiny sleeping cabins. Restrictions at local shelters—one-night caps, referral requirements, bans on pets and partners, lack of accommodations for families or victims of battering—make them inaccessible to large swaths of homeless people.
Subsidized permanent housing can be overly restrictive, too, according to Harlan.
The “two heartbeats per room” HUD guideline that aims to prevent overcrowding, can make it nearly impossible for the Bill Wilson Center and organizations like it to find subsidized housing placements for families with more than a few children. Said Harlan: “I think we can double the number of people in housing if they changed that.”