Throughout Santa Clara County, we have all seen the growing number of people living on our streets and waterways. The number of people struggling with homelessness continues to rise, even though we have passed new taxes like 2016’s Measure A which promised to build 5,000 units over 10 years.
Another tax, 2020’s Measure E, promised millions annually to address homelessness. The state and federal governments have also sent millions annually to local governments in an effort to alleviate this crisis.
Unfortunately, the lack of affordable housing, even though not enough has been created despite all these additional funds, is not the main reason most people end up on our streets.
According to the 2019 Santa Clara County Homeless Census & Survey, 42% of those surveyed had self-reported mental health issues and 35% had drug addiction problems. Out of the 9,700 people surveyed, 27% admitted that they were “justice system involved,” 19% were not from our county and another 14% had lived in our county less than one year. To address homelessness, we have to examine factors like drug addiction, mental illness, family reunification and the massive release of people from our prisons and jails.
Many have blamed city leaders for failing to effectively deal with homelessness, but what most people do not know is helping people with mental health issues, the drug-addicted and the previously incarcerated is the responsibility of the county, not the local city government.
While serving on the San Jose City Council, our city worked hard and found innovative ways to address homelessness. We converted hotels into homes, built tiny homes on vacant properties and worked with churches to allow for safe overnight parking and housing.
San Jose spent millions on prevention by helping pay rent for those who lost their jobs or had funding challenges. Before I left office, the city had built several new buildings and had funded 1,000 more new units. However, these efforts did not address the root causes for homelessness—mental illness, drug addiction and reintegration of the formerly incarcerated.
According to Santa Clara County’s audit of mental health services, more needs to be done to coordinate services. The report provides a recommendation to hire management to create accountability of the numerous nonprofits and vendors receiving funds to provide mental health services. In a recent budget update, I found numerous nonprofits receiving funds to provide services to those struggling with homelessness. However, if we do not specify stated goals, measurable outcomes and interdepartmental coordination, we will continue to just throw money at the problem.
What Santa Clara County must do to have a more successful impact on homelessness is:
- Create a homelessness reduction manager position to coordinate efforts from hospitals, drug rehabilitation services and justice-involved reintegration services.
- Make family reunification a priority
- Implement coordination of emergency medical and emergency psychiatric treatment plans called EmPATH
- Expand Laura’s Law, 180 days of temporary conservatorship, to the severely drug-addicted homeless population and implement Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court, a new policy framework to assist people living with untreated mental health and substance abuse challenges.
- Build rehabilitation and mental health facilities at every county-owned hospital and look at county-owned land to build housing with wrap-around services, as has been promised for many years.
- Not allow early release of the incarcerated unless they undergo a drug treatment assessment, receive job training and receive job and housing placement services so they do not end up homeless. Also, outcome measures to assess the effectiveness of the services provided must be created.
Homelessness is not just a result of low housing inventory or lack of affordability. If we do not insist on accountability, change laws to help the service-resistant and build more supportive housing, we will never make a significant impact alleviating homelessness.
Johnny Khamis is a former San Jose councilmember representing District 10. He now works as a public relations consultant for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors and is running for District 1 county supervisor.