Alvino Valadez Jr. sits inside the stuffy church gym on 10th and San Fernando, under the gaze of 120 other people just like him. They are homeless, or at risk of being homeless, and they all have a decision to make. But not before Valadez.
“Nah, I defer,” he says with a grin.
After patiently slogging through a roughly 40-person waitlist the past two months, Valadez has just chosen to continue spending his days watching television at the Salvation Army shelter’s dining room. Many in the room look bemused. He has just given up a chance to clean up creeks—and his life. Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that provides homeless volunteers work in exchange for a stipend and case management, had offered him a coveted spot on a clean-up team.
But after a brief moment of consideration, Valadez, who speaks with spunk and walks with a faint limp, realizes he’s made a mistake. His hand shoots up. “Actually, I’ll take it,” he says, still grinning.
“I wasn’t ready for it,” he confides later. “And then boom, there it was. It’s a bit overwhelming. You’re getting a job.”
A former cabinet-maker, Valadez, 53, is now one of 62 Streets Team members, most of whom spend their mornings and afternoons cleaning up blight in San Jose. The day he joined he had plans to go fishing with his son. That relationship, and the goal of getting out of the shelters and reclaiming the life he once knew, he says, made him think twice.
It’s a small step, but that’s the point.
“We’re trying to do something different than other nonprofits by empowering men and women to rebuild,” says Eileen Richardson, CEO of Downtown Streets Team. “So they can get back in the swing of things.”
Twenty-six individuals in the 62-person program found housing with the help of Streets Team since July 2013, according to project manager Brandon Davis. But in a county with more than 7,600 living on the streets—the fifth largest homeless population nationally—these efforts only scratch the surface of a growing epidemic. With an average rent almost twice as high as the rest of the nation, San Jose has accumulated a hub of roughly 60 homeless encampments along its creekbeds and freeway underpasses, according to Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless response manager. Strings of crude tents and growing heaps of garbage that started out as eyesores have swelled to full-grown encampments.
Davis says Downtown Streets Team’s model is to “empower folks” and allow them to “re-engage with employment.” The program—separate from another partner program with Groundwerx—operates under a tough love framework, and about one to three people drop out each week. Anyone who arrives late to the member meetings is taken off the waitlist. For the actual volunteer shifts, showing up late equals an infraction—three strikes and they’re out.
The group offers much-needed work experience but not a living wage. Payment comes in the form of $20 gift cards or vouchers for each day of work, which usually entails a four-hour shift. Davis shakes off any suggestion that people could be exploited for free labor. “It’s different in the sense it’s volunteering to empower folks to be a part of the community,” he says. “It’s peer-to-peer support, you get a case manager and case specialist and help with your goals.”
While it’s not exactly fair compensation, local experts seem to agree that empowering individuals is the first step to ending homelessness. But the central challenge persists—many of the people enrolled in Streets Team and other programs remain on the streets.
The Bigger Battle
The city of San Jose has approved $4 million from the general fund for fiscal years 2013-2015 for a rapid rehousing program that targets those who are “employable and can ultimately achieve economic self-sufficiency within two years of the program.”
The annual budget for case management, carried out by Downtown Streets Team, has been set at $650,000. The rest of the money goes to rental subsidies, moving costs and staff funding. Streets Team assigns a case manager to those who fit their criteria of transitionally homeless—people who have “minor, if any, disabilities and [are] employable”—and these people are then partnered with a job specialist.
“We think this gives us the opportunity to target a very large encampment in San Jose, house the people living inside there and increase the vitality of the neighborhood,” Bramson says.
The program has set a goal of housing at least 200 people by the end of this fiscal year, and 67 have been housed so far. Roughly 40 people are in search of housing with vouchers in hand, according to the city. Program participants can receive up to two years of housing.
Another city project in the works wants to put homeless individuals in San Jose motels. With a 4 percent vacancy rate for houses and apartments last year, the project could present a viable option for those with vouchers who can’t afford rental prices. The city is currently accepting nonprofit applications to manage the program until Sept. 4.
Deemed an “interim option” by Bramson, the endeavor will briefly put individuals “somewhere more stable while searching for more housing.” The housing could range from “short of 15 to 30 days” or “theoretically extend up to a year,” he estimates.
“You wouldn’t want to keep living there. The goal is to get permanent housing. We’d love to move them as quickly as possible.”
Housing1000, a campaign led by Santa Clara County, targets a much different segment of the homeless population. The organization reports that it has provided homes to 715 people since its inception in 2011, mostly to the chronically homeless—people who have been homeless for more than a year or had four separate episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
Three hundred volunteers combed the county three years ago, documenting every case in a master database with details on the person’s situation. Ky Le, county director of homelessness, says the survey focuses on “those most vulnerable,” especially those whose lives are at risk.
Instead of what Le calls a “closed system” that past agencies have used, Housing1000 employs a combination of city and county departments, as well as private and nonprofit organizations, to make optimal use of its referral system and 2,500-person registry.
Downtown Streets Team, Housing1000 and the city of San Jose are all affiliated with one another to reduce the homeless population, but each uses different models. Coordination has not always been smooth. But, Le says, “What we need is all services and all different types of services.”
For now, the Salvation Army homeless shelter in downtown San Jose, a beige and off-white two-story building, remains a temporary home for Valadez and others. It is here that he comes to the same conclusion every day: He doesn’t want to live like this anymore; a monthly $640 government check, sharing a room with 20 other people.
“It’s sort of like a jail, but you can come and go as you please,” Valadez jokes. His “biggest fear”—becoming homeless—is his reality. But, he says, joining Streets Team has forced him to be accountable in starting a new track.
“I just want to keep going forward,” he says. “I got to hurdle over.”