Silicon Valley leaders tackle new solutions for homelessness crisis
A homeless encampment along a Highway 101 on-ramp at Story Road. Photo by Kyle Martin.

Creating sanctioned encampments, treating mentally ill and addicted homeless populations and creating an equitable strategy for housing the poor were some of the ideas raised at Monday’s joint meeting on homelessness between the San Jose City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

In a rare occurrence, the two bodies joined forces to review a 2020 plan to reduce and prevent homelessness – a multifaceted collaboration between the city, county and nonprofits like Destination: Home.

Since 2015, Ky Le, director of the county’s office of supportive housing, said that temporary shelter beds have increased by 126 percent and the capacity for permanent supportive housing has risen by 72 percent.

But while program leaders are celebrating the small victory of servicing more people, they’re also facing an exploding population of homeless individuals pouring into San Jose and Santa Clara County.

“We need to stop the inflow into homelessness,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home. “We are being hammered by two to three times as many people a month that are leaving our system and it’s not because we haven’t created a system that isn’t moving people through. It’s because the amount of people coming to us is extraordinary and we have to have an extraordinary response.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg suggested creating a working group to help meet more immediate needs when housing isn’t readily available. She also recommended creating sanctioned encampments – an idea that has been quashed by some San Jose residents in recent months.

“We are still failing to convince our neighbors that sanctioned encampments make sense,” Ellenberg said, referring to residents near the recently-dismantled Hope Village. “If we can provide sanitation and garbage pickup and security, they’ll be safer in the encampments (and) neighbors will be safer outside of them.”

San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis on Monday recommended that the county take a more aggressive approach to treating mentally ill and addicted homeless individuals. Khamis proposed that the board adopt Laura’s Law – a state law that allows court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment – and explore the idea of conservatorship for those in desperate need of treatment for mental illness or addiction.

Khamis also made a bold recommendation: Turning the recently-acquired St. Louise Regional Medical Center into an in-patient care facility for severely mentally ill and addicted homeless individuals.

“I’ve seen the same people on Santa Clara Street for six and a half years,” Khamis said of the homeless individuals who frequent downtown San Jose. “People who should have been (helped) because they can’t take care of themselves and I think it’s inhumane to not tackle this issue.”

Khamis’ proposal, however, was met with pushback. Alison Brunner, CEO of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, said his idea would take the county in the “wrong direction.”

“Research shows that it is the services, not the court order, that provides the real benefit to individuals,” she said. “This is why we need to invest in voluntary, quality services. Involuntary treatment often discourages people from getting help.”

Toni Tullys, the county’s director for behavioral health, said that the county’s mobile crisis response hotline will be expanded, in addition to other outreach and intensive service programs. The county also has plans to implement a “first episode” practice for young adults and children that treats them at the first sign of mental illness.

“There is tremendous evidence demonstrating that if we can get to kids in the right spot, the right services, we can dramatically decrease the likelihood that they’ll end up as a seriously mentally ill adult,” she said. “I think that’s just as important as talking about the adults that need services now.”

Councilmember Maya Esparza stressed that some of San Jose’s most vulnerable neighborhoods – especially East San Jose – are hit hardest by the intractable problem of homelessness. To solve that, she suggested taking an equitable look at housing and homeless strategy.

“I have multiple families living in an apartment (in my district) and that’s the environment where I have kids walking through encampments and needles going to school,” she said.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, who last year championed an effort to build tiny homes for the homeless and has been a driving force in pushing the city to build more housing, was concerned about how to prioritize homeless individuals living in specific neighborhoods.

“Finding money is a critical part of building the housing,” Liccardo said Monday. “But then the other critical part is finding the site and that involves very courageous conversations with communities.”

Le responded that the county hasn’t made promises to house people in certain geographic areas for its rapid-rehousing and permanent supportive housing programs. Instead, they conduct targeted outreach to homeless living in the immediate area.

Board President Joe Simitian said there’s nothing stopping San Jose from taking a similar aggressive outreach approach to house homeless individuals in the neighborhoods they’re already living in.

“I think it’s important that the entire county accept the responsibility for a regional issue,” he said. “If everyone isn’t doing their share, it will fall on you.”

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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