New report: Homelessness in Santa Clara County spikes by 31%
Homeless tents line up near a train crossing at Autumn Parkway near the Guadalupe River. File photo.

Despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into ending homelessness in Silicon Valley, the problem is getting worse — and the 2019 homeless count numbers prove it.

According to details released Thursday, the county's homeless count in 2019 has jumped to 9,706 people countywide. That's up 31 percent from 7,394 individuals two years ago. And the trend continues in the wrong direction: The county's homeless count was 6,556 in 2015.

“This is not shocking at all. It's the inevitable consequence of two behaviors we see in elected officials,” said Matt King, director of organizing at Sacred Heart Community Service. “They either don't want to build any housing at all, or when it comes to projects for people suffering on the streets, waste years hoping to win neighborhood approval that never comes. We need far more political courage to solve this problem.”

In San Jose, the overall homeless count was 6,172, which is an increase of 1,822 over 2017. The report shows homelessness among veterans is down 1 percent and among families is down 3 percent.

The county conducts a “point-in-time” count every two years using surveys and volunteers who go into homeless encampments and visually count unsheltered individuals.

One of the leading causes for people losing their homes was a change in relationship — a break up, domestic violence situation, a disagreement with roommates or family members. Many were employed and the younger generation of homeless residents were in foster care.

“I'm always disappointed to see numbers go up because our mission is to eradicate homelessness,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. “We're working feverishly to get the job done. We feared for the worst when we went out for this count, and it could have been worse. But it's inspiration to keep working hard.”

Most residents reported the reason they aren't housed now is that they could not afford a new apartment.

“The city and the county are failing to provide measures to help people who are already housed,” said longtime homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright. “And they continue to fail them by not creating any navigation centers or shelters for these people who are going homeless and dying in increasingly record numbers.”

In San Jose, HomeFirst operates the county's largest shelter — Little Orchard — but Cartwright said it typically offers beds just for one night. There are limited shelters for families and no domestic violence shelters that accept pets.

Sunnyvale's shelter is expanding from 140 beds to 175 beds in July, but it's a programming shelter and individuals must be referred to stay there. It used to be a walk-in shelter with no referral needed.

“We keep telling people to wait for permanent supportive housing, and in the meantime people die,” Cartwright added during a press conference Thursday afternoon at a homeless encampment beside Coyote Creek near Roosevelt Park. She and two other advocates, Sandy Perry and local pastor Scott Wagers, stood beside 57-year-old homeless resident Keith Salivar at the meeting, who lives in the encampment.

“I'm not homeless because I want to be,” Salivar said. “I'm outside [because] I can't afford a place to stay in San Jose.”

But Wagers isn't convinced that any dent is being made in the homeless crisis, saying that the new numbers are “proof that no progress is being made for the poor.”

“The poor are just being devoured,” Wagers said. “It shows that in America, greed is running the show.”

Despite numerous campaigns by local nonprofits and service providers, Santa Clara County's homelessness problem isn't getting better — and advocates say that's because the county isn't doing enough to prevent homelessness. County data shows that people in Silicon Valley are ending up on the streets at a faster rate than service providers can house them.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement Thursday that despite efforts to house more than 6,900 homeless residents in three years that “for every person we bring in from the cold, the economy pushes three more out the door.” He added that it's time to “end the reign of the NIMBY in Silicon Valley.”

And while voters in 2016 approved Measure A, a $950 million affordable housing bond, the tax revenue is focused on permanent supportive housing — which could take years to build. Advocates say immediate solutions are needed now.

“Measure A is a great step but it's not nearly enough,” King said, adding that the homeless numbers would be worse without prevention programs through Destination: Home and Sacred Heart Community Service. “We need to raise a lot more money and spend it faster and build truly affordable housing in every community in the county.”

Cortese said Measure A has funded 19 housing projects since its adoption, but agreed that the county needs more short-term solutions.

“There's not a set or fixed plan in place to develop a bucket of money and resources to do a better or quicker job of sheltering people,” Cortese said. “But we need that. We absolutely need that. It's great that we have Measure A, but in tandem with that, we need to have short term housing resources — interim housing, transitional housing — and frankly, that's not what Measure A was for. That means we need another bucket of money, whether it comes from the state resources, another revenue measure or from us. Those are all on the table.”

As the news broke that Santa Clara County's homeless count has spiked, Cortese stood at the groundbreaking of 66 new units  for homeless individuals in Sunnyvale. But the city received 3,500 applications in two weeks — and the units are all full.

“The need is 50 times greater than what we have,” he said. “Those other folks are out of luck and that's unacceptable.”

“There's nothing being done to build shelters, navigation centers or encampments — those are the things that will help save lives now and make things better,” agreed Cartwright, adding that measures such as rent control to stop rent hikes and rental assistance for tenants who lose their jobs could also help.

“We need to do a better job of keeping people in their houses,” she added. “No one has the political will to say I'm going to do the right thing — I'm going to push for more navigation centers and shelters.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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