When I was a boy, my mom took me to a homeless shelter to serve a meal during the holidays. The first time we went I was probably 10 and I remember being pretty scared when we arrived.
Everyone was nice, there were decorations and lights up, even some Christmas music playing. But I could tell the people around me were somehow different: tired, weathered, and just a little bit beaten up by the world.
At one point, my mom walked away to talk to someone for a few minutes and I was left alone next to an old man in a wheelchair. He had a blue ball cap on and was sitting slightly slumped over with his eyes closed. I must have been staring at him for a while, waiting for some movement or sign of life, when suddenly he looked up at me.
He had kind eyes that were wet and a little bloodshot. For a moment, he remained silent. Then, he sighed and said to me in a clear, strong voice: “young man, where do we go from here?”
I didn’t know the answer then and now, three decades later, I think we’re still trying to figure it out.
Homelessness is on the rise in the United States. For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported an increase in homelessness, with 553,000 people counted nationwide in 2018. And in California – with the soaring cost of living, a dearth of affordable housing options, and people being pushed onto the streets every day by medical emergencies and evictions – almost one-quarter of the total U.S. homeless population lives on the streets of the Golden State.
Right here at home in Santa Clara County, we have the fifth highest number of people experiencing homelessness in the entire country.
But those numbers alone paint too bleak a picture and, locally, there are a lot of good things happening. In fact, there’s more interest, resources, and political will than ever before to address homelessness head-on and right now.
On a cold winter day this December, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve nine new supportive housing developments, bringing the cumulative investment of 2016 Measure A Affordable Housing Bond funding to $234 million, which will create 1,437 apartments for the most vulnerable residents in our community.
Down the street that same afternoon, in the San Jose Council Chambers, the city moved forward with two bridge housing communities, interim options for folks as they wait for the permanent apartments that the county just approved to be built.
Great strides, to be sure, and all of this coming on the heels of over $28 million from the State Homeless Emergency Aid Program to expand shelter, increase prevention activities, and make sure we’re doing everything we can to get people inside and safe.
With partners like the city, county, the Housing Authority, and a group of dedicated non-profit organizations and advocates, we’ve actually housed more than 6,000 people since 2015. Impressive work, but then you look around and still see all the signs of the severity of the crisis we’re facing.
A candlelight vigil for the homeless students of San Jose State University. A memorial service for 157 people who died outside over the past year. Thousands of extremely low-income families paying 70% of their income for rent. And still more people are becoming homeless every month than being housed.
With an incoming governor interested in homelessness, legislation designed to help speed up the production of supportive housing, hundreds of new supportive and affordable apartments scheduled to open locally, and both public and private partners committing more resources to the cause, there is reason to be optimistic in 2019.
But we need to remain laser-focused and keep pressing forward with solutions that actually end homelessness, while also reducing the suffering of so many who are outside every night.
So… where do we go from here? A good question which might finally have some real answers in the new year.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.