Getting dozens of homeless residents shelter and services isn’t easy, especially when it has to happen in a matter of weeks. But HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton said it’s doable when you have the right resources.
Residents last week were forced to leave a massive homeless encampment at Component Drive in North San Jose on land owned by Apple. Urton, who leads a nonprofit that connects homeless people with services, had weeks to put a roof over people’s heads —but she’s proud that every resident interested in shelter and help got what they wanted.
“By the end of two weeks we pretty much had everybody off-site and in temporary shelter,” Urton told San José Spotlight.
The homeless encampment on a portion of 64-acres of vacant land housed up to 100 people inside tents and vehicles for at least two years. Apple, which has plans to develop the land, contracted with HomeFirst last month to help move people into temporary shelters.
“They wanted to find a solution for their site, but it’s also my understanding that Apple didn’t want to kick people off ruthlessly and make them homeless… and that I really respect,” Urton said, adding that Apple provided several million dollars worth of support for the operation.
Apple offered to pay for each resident to receive nine months of temporary shelter in motel rooms and a year of services, including help with mental health issues and substance addiction. Urton said lengthy case management is especially critical because homeless people transitioning from a camp often experience physical or mental crises—sometimes both—that can be compounded by drug or alcohol addiction.
HomeFirst workers in August met with residents in the camp to talk about shelter options. Those interested in moving to motels were given showers and had their possessions placed in a hot box to eliminate bed bugs. Then, HomeFirst transported them to several shelter locations, moving people in small groups.
Urton said people could bring several bags of possessions, and that those with RVs or cars could park at the shelter sites. For residents who refused a motel room, HomeFirst offered space at a city-operated safe-parking site that opened last week at 71 Vista Montana. Some nearby residents are opposed to the plan and circulated a petition demanding that people not be relocated to the site.
Claims surfaced earlier this week from homeless advocates that women were being placed in rooms with men they did not know. Urton flatly denied that.
“We would never do that,” Urton said, adding that HomeFirst kicked someone out of the program who committed domestic violence.
Urton said people from the encampment are roomed with their families. But, she added, “family” isn’t limited to biological relatives; it also covers groups of people who bonded in the camp and want to remain together.
The long-term plan for those displaced from the encampment is to find them permanent homes. Urton noted that HomeFirst evaluated residents who left the camp using a vulnerability index used by service providers throughout Santa Clara County to assess an individual’s risk of dying on the street. Those with the highest scores received services first.
She said it may be challenging to find permanent homes for people lower on the list, given the lack of affordable housing in Santa Clara County.
“Shelter beds will always be an option for folks,” Urton said.
Gail Osmer, a longtime homeless advocate, closely followed the clearing of the Apple site. She said HomeFirst has done a good job getting people into motels, but she wants to make sure the organization sticks to its promise of fixing their vehicles. Urton said a volunteer mechanic is still helping people repair their cars and RVs.
“All in all, I think they did a pretty job on this one,” Osmer said. “I think things are going pretty well with the folks at the motels. They seem to be happy over there.”