The truth about homelessness is that elected officials focus more on saving their political lives than saving housing insecure and unhoused lives. If they had any political will, they’d address these issues with the seriousness and expediency they deserve rather than platitudes like “we can do better.” They’d tell the NIMBYs “these are you neighbors and we’re going to house them in the neighborhoods they live in.”
With a 31 percent increase, Santa Clara County’s 2019 homeless rate increase is nearly twice that of San Francisco’s. Is the difference because they’ve created navigation centers and opened hundreds more shelter beds while Santa Clara County hasn’t?
San Jose’s 2019 Point in Time (PIT) Count was up 42 percent. The 2018 city of Los Angeles PIT count was down 6 percent. Is it because they’ve created so many new shelters? Is it because they passed a sales tax that’s funding unhoused services? Is it because they spent $619 million in 2018 to address homelessness? L.A. County’s 2018 PIT count was also down, 4 percent.
Also, in L.A. and L.A. County, more than a quarter of their unhoused population is sheltered while 82 percent of Santa Clara County’s falls in that subgroup. I have asked county and city elected officials to form a task force to study unhoused services in L.A. and San Francisco, to search for additional providers and service options, but nobody has prioritized that. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority mission statement is: LAHSA supports and creates solutions to homelessness in Los Angeles County by providing leadership, advocacy, planning, and management of program funding.
The Santa Clara County Office of Supporting Housing’s mission statement is: The Office of Supportive Housing’s (OSH) mission is to increase the supply of housing and supportive housing that is affordable and available to extremely low income or special needs households. OSH supports the County mission of promoting a healthy, safe, and prosperous community by ending and preventing homelessness. There’s vastly important disparities between the two.
Based on the 2017 Santa Clara County PIT count, 35 percent of women and 13 percent of men were victims of domestic violence. Why then are there so few shelters for unhoused domestic violence victims and why do none of them readily accept pets? Decisions like this leave people in dangerous, perhaps deadly, situations.
In 2018, 63 percent of unhoused people were experiencing homelessness for the first time. Where are the elected officials pushing for increased tenant protections? Where is the call for a mass influx of funds to programs that provide rental assistance to prevent folks from becoming homeless?
Last year, 40 percent of adults in the “Supportive Housing System” were over age 51. Why are there no shelters that specialize in the needs of seniors? Why is there no call for one from any elected official?
The number of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) units available in many cities is even more pitifully low than San Jose: Campbell 0; Cupertino 6; Milpitas and Morgan Hill 40 each; Mountain View 51; Gilroy, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale all have less than 90. Of roughly 135,000 rental units in San Jose 1,013 are PSH and 159 are for Rapid Rehousing. Yep, a measly .75 percent of all rental units in San Jose are PSH.
In 2018, some 29 percent of unhoused people identified as LGBTQ. And yet there is only one, 20-bed shelter dedicated to that population. We cannot celebrate a shelter for 20 people and feel as if we’ve done enough. In 2017, 72 percent of unhoused families with children were unsheltered. The waiting list for family shelters is in the hundreds and yet no elected official is calling for new family shelters.
In 2018, people in the Supportive Housing System spent on average 144 days in shelters/transitional housing and were unhoused for two years. Why then is the Office of Supportive Housing pushing to cut the length of stay for unhoused people at the Sunnyvale shelter to 120 days? If the average is 144 days, shouldn’t folks at all shelters be given at least that many days?
Additionally, of the 1,040 shelter clients housed in 2018, the Sunnyvale shelter, with one case worker, housed 150 of them. The Sunnyvale shelter is far and away the safest and cleanest with decades of good reputation and good will.
The San Jose Police Department is now patrolling local waterways. I have no idea who thought that was helpful, I and other advocates made it clear to the police chief this was a bad idea and would not be received well by unhoused people who are frequently harassed by law enforcement. SJPD and the Sheriff’s Office doing “warrant checks” creates a sense of distrust amongst unhoused people. These warrant checks can destabilize camps if the leader is removed for a warrant--which are usually non-violent and petty.
Additionally, removing a camp leader or a domestic partner, leaves women at greater risk which is thoroughly untenable when 50 percent of all unhoused women have been raped at least once during their homelessness.
This might be a good time to point out that SJPD used to have motel vouchers they could use for DV victims, but those went away due to budget cuts. Additionally, in my personal interactions with SJPD, I can say their unhoused domestic violence response is poor and it’s fairly well documented that their responses to mental health issues often ends in fatality. If people don’t feel the police are there to protect them, they don’t cooperate with them or outreach to them, even in emergency, and that’s dangerous.
In 2017, 11 percent of unhoused people had been in the foster care system. According to recent data, one fourth of the countries 437,500 foster youth will end up in the prison system within two years of leaving care. 90 percent of foster youth with five or more placements will enter the prison system. Studies say at least 70 percent of people in the prison system were once in foster care.
So where’s the intense effort to overhaul our foster system to keep foster children out of the justice system and away from homelessness?
According to San Jose’s mayor, for every one person they house, three more become homeless. If these are the facts, what is he doing to address that disparity? What’s he doing to reduce housing insecurity? Who’s holding landlords accountable for evicting disabled folks to make more money, forcing people to live in squalor, increasing rents to exorbitant heights? Don’t these numbers prove that the county’s staunch stance of only supporting PSH is flawed? That the city’s lallygagging on sanctioned encampments, safe parking and tiny homes is only hurting people?
Where’s the county’s push to prevent homelessness? To provide rehabs that folks don’t have to win a lottery to enter? To provide new shelters and navigation centers? To provide sanctioned encampments? To provide safe parking areas en masse, like at all county buildings? Or at the future Housing Authority site on St. John Street?
As for the city of San Jose, where’s the aggressive action to turn large empty parcels into navigation centers or shelters? The two empty Orchard Supply sites, the empty Lowe’s site, the empty former Family Courthouse, the soon to be empty downtown Safeway? To turn vacant lots—so many labeled “Barry Swensen building here”—into safe parking or sanctioned encampments until groundbreaking? To turn all city-owned lots into safe parking programs?
The lack of political will is endangering, torturing and killing unhoused people. The lack of increased rent control causes more people to become homeless. The lack of enough shelters and navigation centers, particularly for the most fragile—seniors, families and domestic violence, forces people to stay outside where they die of largely preventable causes like diabetes and pneumonia.
Focusing on PSH while ignoring sanctioned encampment, tiny home and safe parking options only increases the unhoused death rate. The 2019 PIT count reinforces that. The numbers highlight the need for new ideas—and somebody willing to lead with them.
Shaunn Cartwright is an activist, housing rights advocate and co-founder of South Bay Tenants Union. Opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].