Could housing vouchers help Santa Clara County homeless?
A homeless encampment at Columbus Park in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Washington, D.C.—California was front and center during a virtual congressional hearing last week over whether expanding federal housing vouchers could help the growing homelessness crisis.

The vouchers are part of a federal program to assist low-income families, elderly and disabled residents with affording housing.

“Wages for those below the median income have not kept pace with rising housing costs,” Ben Metcalf told the House Committee on Financial Services. “...This is true nationally and it's particularly true for California.”

Metcalf, managing director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, explained that California is home to seven of the top 10 most expensive cities for renters, including San Jose. Rent in California rose by 37% on average since 2000, he wrote, while average wages only increased by 8% during this time.

Metcalf told lawmakers an expansion of federal assistance is needed to keep people off the streets. He said research shows individuals receiving rental assistance are less likely to experience homelessness, housing instability or unsafe housing conditions.

“Housing vouchers in particular serve the most vulnerable in our society and they give the recipients a unique ability to choose the kind of housing and location that best meet their needs,” he said.

Metcalf advised legislators to invest heavily in renter counseling and landlord outreach, and to work on eliminating discrimination against voucher users.

Another expert, however, warned against expanding housing vouchers. Howard Husock, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said vouchers won't help with some of the underlying causes of homelessness, such as addiction and untreated mental illness.

Vouchers also fail to address the fundamental supply issue, he explained.

“A new entitlement program may simply put more low-income households in competition with each other for a few available units,” said Husock.

Committee members Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) are drafting the Ending Homelessness Act of 2021, a measure that would establish a universal voucher program and ban discrimination against voucher users. It has not yet been formally introduced.

“Unlike other federal safety net programs, housing choice vouchers are not an entitlement, meaning that not everyone who qualifies for a voucher receives one,” reads a committee memo. “Making (housing choice vouchers) universal to everyone who meets income eligibility requirements would enable the nation to make progress in ending homelessness.”

The number of Californians living on the streets has skyrocketed in recent years—and Santa Clara County is no exception. It's challenging to collect data about unhoused populations, but the most recent counts indicate homelessness is moving in the wrong direction. The county’s homeless count was 6,556 in 2015, 7,394 in 2017, and 9,706 in 2019.

Ray Bramson, chief operating officer of Destination: Home, told Lucescamaray Blog there is no silver bullet that will solve homelessness. But he said housing vouchers are an effective resource to get people off the streets.

“It has absolutely been a successful tool to help people,” said Bramson, who writes a monthly column on homelessness for this news organization. “We desperately need more vouchers for our community.”

Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said he strongly supports universal housing vouchers. He said rising housing costs in Silicon Valley leave individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.

But Perry said the government must also work to create more affordable housing options.

“Vouchers alone will not solve the problem because there are problems with the availability of housing,” he said. “If you have a lot of people with vouchers but you don’t have enough housing for them, then it doesn’t help.”

Perry added that housing has lost its “true social purpose” in recent decades.

“Human beings invented housing to protect them from the elements, but in the last 30 years or so it's been taken over by hedge funds as an investment to make money. That needs to change,” he said.

In San Jose, how to handle homelessness is a divisive issue.

City officials came under fire in December for dismantling a homeless encampment to make way for a trail renovation, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying people in encampments should be allowed to stay put to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The San Jose City Council later rejected a sanctioned homeless encampment plan in May—a decision that drew criticism from some homeless rights advocates.

Those in need of temporary shelter can visit the city’s COVID-19 homeless resource page or call (408) 278-6420.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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