Op-Ed: Homeless People Should be Housed, Not Warehoused

I am writing in response to yesterday’s op-ed titled Are We Serious About Ending Homelessness—or Pushing Out Homeless People? by Shaunn Cartwright.

First let me say that we, at HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County, are committed to doing all that we can to assist the 7,398 homeless individuals—men, women and children—counted in the 2017 point-in-time county census. We know that number is low and may not take into consideration other individuals and families who live on the edge of homelessness due to job loss, medical emergencies, redevelopment, or natural disasters such as flooding or fire.

HomeFirst, formerly known as EHC LifeBuilders, has been in business for 35 years and operated the Boccardo Reception Center (BRC) for over 20. Our mission is to confront homelessness by cultivating people’s potential to get and stay housed. Our agency has worked toward these goals since our inception in 1980. In addition to the BRC, HomeFirst operates and manages separate housing programs for families, as well as the Overnight Warming Locations that are established each winter at various locations throughout Santa Clara County.

The BRC, the county’s largest emergency shelter with 250 beds for adults only, offers a range of services through a complex fabric of contracts with different government agencies and private donations, including medical respite, VA programs for homeless veterans, reentry programs through Probation, New Start and Working Persons Programs and more. HomeFirst works very hard to leverage limited resources through strategic partnerships with other nonprofit agencies, civic organizations, volunteers, fundraising efforts, and outreach programs.

After a comprehensive and thoughtful evaluation and review process over the course of the past year, which involved meetings with our strategic partners and government agencies, including the County of Santa Clara, the city of San Jose, Valley Medical Center, Valley Health and Homeless Program, San Jose Police Department and HomeFirst staff, HomeFirst recently implemented some significant changes designed to more effectively fulfill its mission to assist homeless individuals get established on the path towards permanent housing.

It is well established that the only viable solution to homelessness is permanent housing, which is especially challenging in Santa Clara County due to the lack of sufficient affordable housing, not just for the chronic homeless, but low wage earners, displaced families, victims of domestic violence, and persons displaced by evictions, job losses, and natural disasters.

For all of these, finding a pathway to permanent housing is much more cost effective in the long run than simply just providing an overnight bed in a large warehouse. The proper solution requires a combination of not just a safe place to sleep, but supportive services, case management and follow up.

This is what Wednesday’s change was all about: creating workable plans for individuals from homelessness to being housed, not warehoused. Bringing in 45 individuals who will have a guaranteed bed for up to 60 days with possible exceptions during which they can receive case management, housing assistance and more.

They will have access to skills building opportunities such as New Start and to the Working Person’s Program that assists them in maintaining a job or jobs—regardless of hours while saving money to prepare for becoming housed.

In the National Alliance to End Homelessness in their “Best Practices of Emergency Shelters: The Critical Role of Emergency Shelter in an Effective Crisis Response System” by Cynthia Nagendra and Kay Moshier McDivitt, states, “Low-barrier shelter is a cornerstone of a functional crisis response system.” And so the BRC located on Little Orchard has been transitioned to a be a low-barrier shelter.

In building upon the concept of best practice, they call for shelter that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year with staff available to allow entry as needed and that there is a direct connection to street outreach.

The BRC and, under the current interim plan, the Sunnyvale Family Shelter are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year with staff available as noted. HomeFirst Outreach Teams visit more than a dozen encampments per day in two-person teams, thus there is a direct connection to street outreach.

Let me be clear, living in a shelter is not ideal.

The BRC is a place that is warm when it is cold outside, and cool when the temperatures soar. We serve three meals a day and because of a great community partnership offer Starbucks snacks and entrees as a choice. We are blessed with thousands of volunteers who prepare and serve meals, run warm coat and blanket drives and so much more. These volunteers greet our guests with respect and consideration.  Our staff is well trained in de-escalation practice and customer service.

We work with every provider named in the article. We have successfully operated the Overnight Warming Locations for San Jose for the past three years, and hope to do so again this year. It is a grueling process, but we are proud of the job we have done.

At the end of the day, anyone advocating for our homeless neighbors is literally saving lives. And we deeply appreciate their efforts. HomeFirst hosts the annual memorial service for those in who have died in our county while still homeless.

Ms. Cartwright was there last year when 116 names were read aloud—the youngest just 21 and many in their 50s or 60s. As far as I know that is the last time she was in the BRC. It is far from an ideal environment, but we know that this new practice will ultimately raise the sense of personal safety, reduce the number of threatening incidents and introduce hope as a common practice. This is what HomeFirst is all about.

Andrea Urton is the CEO of HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected]


  1. the programs mentioned in this article were all in place during my stay at BRC ,in fact, I’m in this picture on your article, the problem is all these programs have limits as to how many they can help, Julian House only has so many beds, and many are in a gray area, during my stay I didn’t qualify for any, either I worked, worked not enough hours,or because I was self employed, Home First does the best they can with limited funds, and support,what city,county,state and federal officals need to know is not how many are homeless but “why” so many are homeless, I was there I saw why everyday and night, we have city officials going to Seattle to spend a night in a homeless shelter (???) why not here,to see for themselves,what Home first is doing is fantastic with what they receive and get, sorry to ramble
    best regards
    scott pearson

  2. Odd that the CEO of the agency thinks that they’ve operated the Boccardo Reception Center for more than 35 years; I’m pretty sure that it opened much, much later than that. Like more than a decade later than that. Details.

  3. > First let me say that we, at HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County, are committed to doing all that we can to assist the 7,398 homeless individuals—men, women and children—counted in the 2017 point-in-time county census.

    Gee. Isn’t 7,398 homeless individuals a big INCREASE?

    I wonder why the number is going UP?

    Sounds like all the programs and policies to reduce homelessness are failing.

  4. Of course the homeless are people, but why are we treating them like a natural resource or an endangered species to be preserved and coddled?

    • “People” to most rational, empathetic beings are neither a natural resource or an endangered species. Serve a meal at an emergency shelter. Sleep in a cardboard box or on the street. Spend 24 hours not knowing what, if anything, you will eat. Fall asleep knowing you are not physically safe and there is nothing you can do about it. Sleep in your car not knowing where, when or how you will take a shower, wash your hair or clean your clothes. Fit everything you own into 2 large trash bags. Then tell us if you feel coddled and preserved. Consider what it feels like to have people turn away rather than look in your eyes or to look with naked derision and contempt. Think about the slurs, very real threat of violence and physical vulnerability. Tell us then if you see them as coddled or endangered.

  5. As with every bureaucrat, the only strategy is to spend as much money as you get get your hands on, someone else’s money. As the amount of money and the number of people you manage determine your success and your political weight, Which then explains why the number of homeless has been growing up and will continue to grow up, even if you increase their budget not 100% but 100 times. This is California bureaucrats failing at their finest.

    • In your scenario who is the bureaucrat who is spending all this money and amassing all this power. Do you understand that the only true solution to homelessness is affordable housing? That it cost less to provide affordable housing and case management than to keep building emergency shelters and turning a blind eye to the income disparity that is keeping so many on the streets?

  6. > Op-Ed: Homeless People Should be Housed, Not Warehoused

    What’s the difference?

    If they are “housed” at public expense without any options, they are “warehoused”.

    If the public is providing the warehousing, the public can decide the location and the amenities for the warehouses.

    Double decker bunks in barracks on reservations in North Dakota. It’s good enough for the Indians.

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