Every two years, Santa Clara County does a Homeless Census and Survey to receive federal homeless funding. The most recent survey, conducted in January 2013, shows an increase in homelessness, as more and more people are setting up encampments in San Jose. Below are some of the key findings and possible steps San Jose and Santa Clara County can take to address the issue in a more humane way.
Santa Clara County had 7,631 homeless individuals as of January 2013, an increase of 564 (8 percent) from the 2011 survey.
Unsheltered homeless individuals accounted for 74 percent, or 5,674, an increase of 507 people compared to 2011. The largest increase was seen in people living in homeless encampments, up from 34 percent in 2011 to 42 percent this year. Vehicles, unoccupied buildings, structures not meant for habitation, and motels all decreased.
The number of people in shelters and transitional housing increased by just 59 people since 2011, while the percentage of homeless families bumped from 12 to 14 percent.
It is estimated that 71 percent of homeless lived in San Jose prio to becoming homeless, while 15 percent lived somehwere in Santa Clara county, 8 percent lived in other California counties and 7 percent lived outside of California before coming to San Jose. An unusually high 29 percent of San Jose’s homeless were not prior residents. Instead they moved to San Jose.
The question is why.
San Jose disproportionally provides housing and has more homeless, which—with lower per capita tax revenues—contributes to city budget deficits, lower city services and decreases quality of life. Meanwhile, wealthier tax revenue counties and cities and their businesses avoid housing and homeless public costs.
Homelessness is a community problem that San Jose, and Santa Clara County government and nonprofits cannot or should not be expected to solve by themselves.
We are all affected by the homeless problem either directly or indirectly, with increases in government costs needed to reduce and treat the homeless population. Silicon Valley is known for innovative solutions.
Here are a few ideas that can start a community conversation to develop and apply innovation to reducing homelessness.
1. Most approaches to dealing with the homeless involve trying to move them out of the illegal encampments they are living in rather than providing “urban camping” areas that have toilets, sanitation, dumpsters, access to social and medical services, and improved individual safety where people can live temporarily until they are able to find housing.
San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Santa Clara County spend millions each year moving the homeless out of illegal encampments, only to do it over and over again, month after month. Establishing multiple urban camping areas throughout the county is the best interim solution, if done right, and is better than current illegal encampments. This has been done both successfully and unsuccessfully in other cities, so the best practices will have to be used and modified as needed to be successful.
2. There is a great need for small, low-cost, effective first-step transitional housing units with services. The Sacramento Safe Ground nonprofit is partnering with community groups like Loaves & Fishes, Sacramento Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity to create regional solutions, where unsheltered homeless adults sign covenants to be alcohol-, drug- and violence-free, and occupy individual small sleeping cabins for privacy and dignity. Each cabin will have solar power and house one or two adults.
3. Re-entry parolees, newly released ex-offenders and Megan’s list sexual offenders—based on a California Department of Corrections study of major urban areas—have as high as 30 to 50 percent homeless rates. Homelessness is common among parolees since they have little or no income, and their criminal records make it difficult to obtain housing, especially in an expensive housing market. Research shows that individuals who maintain contact with supportive family or friends have stable housing and employment when they return to their community.
4. Many homeless cannot live in homeless shelters, transitional housing or assisted housing, because their behavior violates drug and alcohol abuse rules or their mental illness disturbs others. They are often evicted and denied future housing, so they live in cars, RVs and outdoors, subjecting them to crime, medical issues and other problems.
Our community needs to develop transitional or permanent housing solutions, as 21 percent of the homeless became so with drug and alcohol problems and 22 percent had mental-health issues, based on the 2013 survey. This is better than having them continue to be homeless, which is a significant problem that has not been successfully addressed.
If solving the homeless issue was easy, it would have been solved years ago. Each person is different and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.
If you have better community solutions to reduce homelessness that are legal, reasonable, humane and cost-effective, please offer them.
Ed Rast is an United Neighborhood’s member. He served on the 2005 Santa Clara County task Force to End Homelessness.