UPDATE: Is San Jose spending too much on homeless outreach?
PATH social workers walked the Guadalupe River Trail in San Jose on Jan. 24, 2023 to tally the number of homeless people in the area. File photo.

    San Jose leaders are questioning if spending millions on homeless outreach is worth the investment, with efforts producing single-digit success rates last year.

    San Jose spent $24 million in federal grants last year aimed at addressing homelessness. Of the more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness that two city-funded nonprofits reportedly connected with, less than 10% eventually transitioned into any type of temporary or permanent housing. There are more than 6,300 homeless people across the city, according to this year’s point-in-time count.

    Officials questioned staff about the low numbers at Tuesday’s San Jose City Council meeting. The data is part of an annual report on the city’s progress in reaching its housing and community development goals for federal funding for affordable housing and responding to homelessness.

    Mayor Matt Mahan said the city spends about $6 million annually on various homeless outreach programs. He said he’d like more evidence on how that spending fits in with the overall goals of housing people living on San Jose streets in temporary and permanent housing. He said 70% of roughly 1,500 people who’ve entered interim housing still live there, but capacity is lacking and waitlists are long—more than 4,500 people still live on the streets.

    “If we’re not offering a place to go, maybe we’re overspending on outreach that we should be spending elsewhere,” Mahan said.

    The city has awarded HomeFirst, a local nonprofit homelessness services provider, $3.4 million since 2018 to conduct outreach to people experiencing homelessness, according to city documents. HomeFirst’s efforts last year reached 706 participants—well over the goal of 600—but only 8%  successfully moved into housing of any kind. 520 are no longer receiving services.

    A representative from HomeFirst did not respond to requests for comment.

    “Are there discussions about how we’re going to work to improve these statistics?” Councilmember Peter Ortiz said. “To be honest, they’re not looking really good for us right now.”

    Kelly Hemphill, a homeless response manager with the city, said HomeFirst’s outreach is more of a reactionary program and is not necessarily meant to place people in housing. Several councilmembers asked for that to be made clearer in the report.

    Hemphill said the city has been analyzing its outreach programs, and plans to put out two contracts for a more targeted outreach approach for specific areas of San Jose, including downtown.

    Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei expressed concern that the city does not have a sustainable model for continuing to pay millions of dollars for outreach with limited success.

    “There’s no end to how much we’re going to spend,” Kamei said. “As we start thinking about (outreach) … I want to think about how we’re going to pay for it.”

    Another local nonprofit, People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, has been awarded $6.5 million since 2018 for homeless outreach services. PATH’s outreach work this year reached 594 people, 457 of whom are no longer in contact with the program or receiving services. Ten percent successfully transitioned into housing of any kind.

    Laura Sandoval, PATH’s regional director in Santa Clara County, said it has been difficult placing people into permanent housing in San Jose. On top of not being able to afford the high cost of living, temporary housing availability is a struggle. People prefer private living quarters, as opposed to a bed in a shared space, where demand far exceeds supply, Sandoval said.

    “People just emerging from having experienced the real trauma of homelessness and a crisis of their personal safety, don’t always feel at ease to take those options that are available,” Sandoval told San José Spotlight, “but are more likely to accept an option where they can have a bit more privacy.”

    Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said no one will find success with homeless outreach until the city has the affordable housing inventory needed to offer its most vulnerable residents a place to live. Since 2015, the city has met just 13% of its extremely-low income housing goal. There are only 29 homes available for every 100 extremely-low income households in the San Jose metro area, according to the city’s draft housing element.

    People experiencing homelessness generally move around, Sandoval said, and last year’s string of severe storms prompted relocations for people experiencing homelessness. PATH supported some of the city’s efforts to provide support at emergency shelter locations—Sandoval said that may have affected the group’s ability to follow up.

    Homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright said residents should not just be questioning the return on this use of taxpayer dollars, but demanding additional work be done—including an audit and a study on the experiences of those who have used city-funded homelessness services.

    “For years, we’ve asked that advocates and people with lived experience from a city or county committee be tasked with looking into visiting vendors in other areas and hopefully bringing them to San Jose and Santa Clara County,” Cartwright told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think anyone can deny that request anymore in light of these abysmal results.”

    A state committee voted in March to review the success rates of various state and local programs, including how cities like San Jose have spent state and federal funding to reduce homelessness. The audit follows a request from state Sen. Dave Cortese, who said the review is “not an indictment.”

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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