Santa Clara County should adopt technology to help homeless, audit says
Two "BeautifySJ" trash bags wait behind an RV parked along Will Wool Dr. to be picked up by trash collectors. Photo by Vicente Vera

Across the country groups that work with unhoused populations have ditched paper records for new technologies, but not in Silicon Valley.

According to a report released last month by State Auditor Elaine Howle, the coalition of groups that work with homeless residents in Santa Clara County rely on outdated methods to track the people they help.

Both HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness urge the use of mobile apps to count homeless people in a biennial census. This method is less expensive, provides a greater level of security and makes it easier to correct mistakes, according to auditors.

“For example, if a volunteer consistently forgets to enter information into a specific field, such as a person’s age, gender, race or ethnicity, the (local organization) can monitor for these data input errors and contact the volunteer immediately to correct the problem,” auditors said.

In a written response, the alliance of Santa Clara County organizations that help the homeless, known as a continuum of care or CoC, said they will use a mobile application in the next homeless census. But the group said it isn’t sure technology is the solution.

“It is currently unknown whether the use of a mobile application will serve as the most effective means for conducting a … count with the population being served due to limited access to and discomfort with the technology,” Santa Clara County leaders wrote in response to the audit.

State’s approach leaves gaps

Despite spending billions, the number of Californians living on the streets continues to soarand Howle says the state’s uncoordinated approach is partly to blame.

In an open letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, Howle said that at least nine state agencies administer and oversee 41 different programs that provide funding to homelessness-related programs. But the council charged with overseeing these efforts doesn’t actually have the authority to do so.

“Given the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in California, and the amount of funding the state and federal governments commit to combatting it, the state needs to ensure that its system for addressing problems at both the (local) and the state level is coherent, consistent, and effective,” Howle wrote.

The Homelessness Coordinating and Financing Council was created in 2017 to help with these issues, but the auditors found it doesn’t have authority to meet its oversight goals. For example, the council cannot require state agencies to turn over information on spending, auditors said.

The need for a statewide strategy may soon be more crucial than ever. The report warned homelessness will likely rise later this year when California’s current moratorium on evictions expires on June 30. Many renters may be unable to remain in their homes, it explained, due to the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 151,000 Californians were homeless in 2019, an increase of 15% from 2017, according to the report.

Like in the rest of the state, a growing number of people in San Jose are struggling with homelessness. The number of homeless residents countywide jumped to 9,706, up 31% from 2017. The count tallied 6,172 homeless people in San Jose alone, a spike of 42%.

This year’s biennial homeless count in Santa Clara County has been canceled because of COVID-19.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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