Santa Clara County expands homeless prevention services, lacks housing
Tony Payer, a resident of the sprawling homeless encampment near Columbus Park, is pictured in this file photo.

    Two years after adopting a multi-prong plan to address the growing homelessness crisis in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County and San Jose are making some headway. But advocates and officials say the work is far from finished.

    Since January 2020, Santa Clara County has cut the number of people falling into homelessness annually by more than 30% through prevention and intervention measures, according to new figures released Thursday by the county and nonprofit leaders.

    More than 90% of households who received assistance only needed $5,000 on average to find stability and have remained housed for at least two years, according to county data.

    In 2019, the county estimated that roughly 4,771 people ended up on the streets each year. That number has since dropped to 3,172 people in 2021, as a result of eviction and rental assistance protections available during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates said.

    Santa Clara County also made significant strides in expanding prevention services during the pandemic, hitting about 63% of the overall goal of serving 2,500 people a year.

    “We see this as progress,” Supervisor Otto Lee told San José Spotlight. “Until we end homelessness, we are short of calling progress success.”

    But homelessness has continued to explode in the South Bay in recent years.

    In 2019, Santa Clara County reported a record high number of 9,706 unhoused residents—a number that grew dramatically from a population of 7,394 just two years prior. In response, Destination: Home, an advocacy nonprofit, and a coalition of advocates and officials called Santa Clara County Continuum of Care came together to draft a five-year, multi-approach plan to address the growing humanitarian crisis.

    Called “Community Plan to End Homelessness,” Santa Clara County gave itself a deadline of 2025 to double its temporary shelter capacity, house 20,000 people through supportive housing, cut the annual inflow of people becoming unhoused by 30%, expand homelessness prevention programs to serve 2,500 people yearly and address racial inequities that disproportionately affect people of color.

    But even as the county makes headway in its homelessness prevention strategies, Santa Clara County residents continue to fall into homelessness faster than the county can house them. According to Destination: Home, for every two persons connected to housing, three more are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

    The region also falls short on other strategies. It has only added 345 more shelter beds since 2020—18% progress on its plan. It housed 5,941 people through supportive housing programs—roughly 30% of the goal of housing 20,000 by 2025. However, it’s not immediately clear as to the demographic of those who were housed in the last two years. In 2019, the county reported roughly 2,470 unhoused people experiencing chronic homelessness and nearly 1,880 children or young adults on the streets.

    The plan, crafted pre-pandemic, didn’t adjust its goals after COVID-19 upended the lives of thousands of people—many of whom are low-income, people of color or living with a disability. While the coalition launched a program last year to specifically address unhoused families, some of the most vulnerable—such as homeless seniors—appear to have been left behind. The county reported a record high number of 145 seniors dying on the streets in 2021.

    While Silicon Valley, with the help of advocates, nonprofits and private sectors, may have slowed the number of people falling into homelessness, homeless camps have grown in size and visibility throughout the pandemic.

    Santa Clara County is gearing up to conduct a census count of its unhoused population next week, and homeless advocates expect the number to be exponentially higher than in 2019.

    Officials have raced to build more permanent and transitional housing to get residents off the streets. Since voters approved an unprecedented affordable housing bond measure of $950 million in 2016, the county has opened 830 new homes in nine developments to serve more than 1,600 people, with another 1,280 affordable homes under construction. The Board of Supervisors recently approved funding for six additional developments in San Jose, Sunnyvale and Mountain View to add 758 new affordable units to the housing pipeline.

    David Low, spokesperson for Destination: Home, said the county tries to prioritize the most vulnerable people, but resources and available housing types are limited.

    “We are still facing huge headwinds,” Low said, adding systemic factors such as wealth gaps, the lack of affordable housing and systemic racism continue to push people into homelessness. “Overcoming them is going to take a sustained commitment, and we are by no means out of the woods yet.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: Destination: Home Executive Director Jennifer Loving serves on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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