San Jose: Homelessness forum highlighted statistics and solutions
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo sat down with the San Francisco's Chronicle's Audrey Cooper to discuss homelessness. Photo by Katie Lauer.

A panel discussion on homelessness brought dozens out to San Jose Thursday to talk solutions to a problem affecting thousands within Santa Clara County.

Leading voices from the city, county and local nonprofits met with the San Francisco Chronicle at the Cisco campus to detail what’s been done, what’s happening now and what could be done moving forward to address homelessness in the Bay Area.

Held just days after the Chronicle published its annual, in-depth SF Homeless Project, the sold-out event was yet another way to educate residents in Santa Clara County, which had a 31 percent uptick in homeless individuals since 2017.

“What they need is just enough housing to get them back on their feet”

Diving right in, Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper sat down with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to examine the current crisis. Cooper cited statistics from the 2019 Point-in-Time count, a biennial attempt to tally homeless individuals, which found that Santa Clara County counted 9,706 people living on the streets – the highest rate seen in a decade. The city of San Jose alone accounted for 6,172 homeless individuals, a 41 percent jump from 2017.

“San Jose should be on the hook. None of us are doing enough,” Liccardo said. “Frankly, it’s not a crisis for enough of us… until we recognize that the cost of doing nothing is far greater than whatever tax we might pay to address this, we’re not going to change.”

So, what needs to be done? Liccardo isn’t sure that simply building more shelters is the answer.

“What they need is just enough housing to get them back on their feet,” he said.

In line with that approach, the mayor said San Jose is exploring opening a navigation center with hopefully 200 to 300 beds. The city hopes the center will provide stable, short-term living that will help directly lead to permanent housing.

But economically, new developments aren’t always the answer either. Liccardo said some estimates calculate that it could take around $6 billion to build new housing for the city’s 6,172 homeless residents. So, the city is turning to new, creative ways to put a roof over people’s heads.

One such way is through so-called “granny units.” A new city website will launch soon, which will detail plans to help current homeowners construct the potentially rent restrictive backyard cottages and acquire forgivable loans and waived fees.

“People suffering outside is the worst”

Following the one-on-one discussion with Liccardo, a panel discussion with three experts convened.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez took the discussion of financial shifts a step further in the second half of the evening. During a panel moderated by Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan, who covered homelessness full time, Chavez said the county still spends around $520 million a year on the homeless crisis, whether that’s funding jails or mental health services.

“Thinking about how we change the dynamic so that we’re doing what is fundamentally economically right, right for human beings and right in the long term means we need to shift spending money on, frankly, keeping someone homeless into maybe then just sheltering them,” she said.

From left: Jennifer Loving, Claudine Sipili, Cindy Chavez and Kevin Fagan. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Fagan cited statistics showing that it can cost around $85,000 to leave someone on the street, while it only runs around $25,000 to put them into supportive housing.

That type of immediate, supportive housing was a theme pushed by the entire panel, which also included CityTeam’s Claudine Sipili and Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving. Measure A – Santa Clara County’s $950 million affordable housing bond – is ahead of schedule in building those much-needed units, the experts said.

“We have 19 projects in process, we have many, many more in the pipeline,” Chavez said. “We’re building in six cities, and we’re ready to go get our second tranche of funding.”

Loving said many didn’t think the housing projects were even possible with Silicon Valley’s high land prices. But she said supplying this form of long-term housing, as opposed to simply building additional shelters, is the ultimate goal to permanently house the county’s most vulnerable residents.

“People suffering outside is the worst, and having more interim temporary options for people is important,” Loving said. “Santa Clara County has more than doubled its shelter capacity over the last few years, while doing theses 19 Measure A projects. People need to have a place to go, but making (shelters) a primary solution does not feel like it’s about the people who need the solution.”

The panel ended with some simple advice on what Bay Area residents can do while lawmakers continue pushing solutions: use your voice on behalf of others, say yes to housing where you live and be kind.

“You believe in the act that every human needs hope and every human needs a home,” CityTeam’s Claudine Sipili said, regarding writing to elected officials. “That is what you believe in, and that’s what you’re going to write. But also be kind, which on the street means looking (the homeless) in the eye.”

Contact Katie Lauer at klauer77@gmail.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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