Before 2010, Joel Alejo more or less always lived with family. Then, his grandmother died unexpectedly and Alejo was out of a home for several years until 2017, when he landed a job maintaining a pair of homes in San Leandro.
Last year, that dried up, too, sending him spiraling into homelessness again.
“It is hard, really. There is no way to live comfortably outside when it is raining and windy,” he says. “It is hard. It is really hard. Sometimes, I would like to cry.”
Alejo made his way to Mountain View, where, he says, a police dog bit him while he slept outside in a neighborhood. A friend told him about a community of homeless people at Fair Oaks Park in Sunnyvale, which seemed like a good fit, so he followed the lead.
Now, Alejo is on the move again, along with the other residents of the Fair Oaks homeless encampment in the South Bay city. The city dispersed the encampment in late February as part of a $17 million renovation of the 15-acre park.
His story is similar to countless homeless residents in Silicon Valley, where a housing crunch has helped push prices up beyond reach for many people—even during a pandemic that has resulted in newly untethered workers leaving the state as employers switch to remote work arrangements.
But now the region’s longtime housing and homeless crisis is paired with a pandemic that puts homeless residents at enormous risk to contract and spread a potentially deadly virus. Simultaneously, the pandemic lockdowns also created gaping fiscal deficits for cities and counties as the economy stumbled and tax dollars dwindled over the past year.
Those challenges are being felt especially hard in smaller Silicon Valley cities, like Sunnyvale, which typically don’t have much of a budget—if any—to address the growing number of homeless residents in the region.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cities should not sweep homeless encampments during the Covid-19 pandemic, unless it is to provide housing for the camp’s residents. So, the city of Sunnyvale relocated some—but not all—of the park’s residents to a hotel with onsite services.
But one longtime homeless advocate, Shaunn Cartwright, says the city only did so because she and others raised hell.
Even now, Cartwright says the accommodations at the hotel are insufficient and a result of a hurried effort by Sunnyvale to get Fair Oaks residents out of the park as quickly and quietly as possible. Security at the hotel is untrained in de-escalation and the level of case management service is subpar because only one person is devoted to it, she says.
Cartwright claims the city is caving to vocal groups of thin-skinned neighbors.
“These [neighbors] seem to have more influence than government officials, who lack spines and political courage,” she says. “If people said ‘That is not my cup of tea’ instead of rallying the neighbors and getting torches, it would be so much better.”
Sunnyvale city officials say they’re doing their best to find a safe solution for the ousted homeless residents while balancing the rising costs of the project at the park, which needs sewer and electric work.
That kind of construction poses a hazard to people living on-site, but delaying the project would push up costs—something the city can’t afford in the wake of a pandemic that left government coffers emptier than before, city spokeswoman Jennifer Garnett says.
So far, Sunnyvale has spent more than $400,000 to relocate Fair Oaks residents and provide them onsite services such as case management, toiletries and meals.
“As a city, we don’t have the staffing and the money to provide services for the unhoused,” Garnett says. “When we plan out our budget, we do not expect to provide services for these people.”
The Big Picture
In the case of Fair Oaks residents, HomeFirst Services, a non-profit funded largely by government grants, coordinated Sunnyvale’s relocation of Fair Oaks residents to 18 rooms at the Travel Inn in the city.
The relocation came with a time crunch, but the nonprofit and Sunnyvale officials did the best they could, says Stephanie Demos, a spokeswoman for HomeFirst. She says the outcome was positive.
“There will always be people in the community who want to see things done differently, and we appreciate their passion,” Demos says. “We are very lucky … we have some outspoken advocates—some with lived history.”
Cartwright and Demos disagree on the success of the Fair Oaks relocation.
But they agree the entire situation is a symptom of a larger problem: a startling lack of affordable housing.
“The only real solution to homelessness is housing,” Demos says.
Demos says she hopes cities will take a cue from San Jose, which has erected new bridge housing communities and emergency interim housing programs during the pandemic. Those kinds of collaborations that involve cities, counties, nonprofits and the private sector are the key, she adds.
Ray Bramson, chief operating officer at Destination:Home, a public-private partnership aimed at ending homelessness, echoed the sentiment.
“It is a challenge that no one city can solve on their own, it is a community problem that requires a community solution,” he says. “If we have people sleeping on the streets of our community, there is more we can all do. Even if you are going to alleviate their suffering in two years, we need to do something today.”
The ideal solution is a home for everyone, Bramson says, but before lingering on that idea too long, he adds, “but that is not going to happen.”
Programs like Project Roomkey, a California Department of Social Services initiative rolled out in March 2020 to offer temporary housing to homeless residents during the pandemic, are a bright spot, he says. The state has since rolled out Project Homekey, meant to turn some of the hotels, motels and apartment buildings used in Project Roomkey into permanent housing for the homeless.
“If you can come together with a collective set of values and goals, you can accomplish great things,” Bramson says. “As a country, we have never come to grips with the lack of resources and a lack of a safety net absent for decades.”
While the pandemic seems to have gotten people thinking about some of those larger issues, people like Alejo’s immediate needs haven’t gone away.
He was nervous about the relocation from Fair Oaks, but says he is grateful for the services being provided.
“I am so very, very happy,” Alejo says.
“My plan is to get up on my feet, to get a job, any job.”