Group of people holding signs in front of San Jose City Hall, front sign reading "Why doesn't the city/county care about children?"
Homeless families and advocates are calling for San Jose and Santa Clara County to provide quicker support services. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Homeless families in Santa Clara County are calling for immediate help after recent storms forced them from their temporary shelters onto the streets.

It can take months to obtain shelter and supportive services in the region, and with existing facilities across the county at or near capacity, a coalition of advocates and unhoused families say San Jose and Santa Clara County need to open more shelters. The group spoke at a news conference Wednesday where it also called for a shelter in Sunnyvale to reopen to families, with more people left without shelter in recent storms.

“It’s a revolving door. You get referrals to things that don’t exist or (are) at capacity, so we need to expand,” Debra Townley, a formerly unhoused mother, told San José Spotlight. “More and more families are becoming homeless every day, families with children especially. The services are not meeting that need.”

Erykha, who asked to not use her last name out of fear of endangering her two children, said she lost her job last year and called the county’s Here4You hotline in September, hoping to find shelter. She said she was offered space at a shelter within a month, but declined, saying she was worried the space wouldn’t be safe for her children.

Declining the space got her taken off of the county’s waitlist, without her knowledge, and she said it’s a three-month wait for another space. Erykha said if she had known declining would remove her from the list, she would have taken the space.

“They need to work on the system because three months is way too long,” she said.

Consuelo Hernandez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing, said her office is aware of the waiting list for families and will be giving the county Board of Supervisors recommendations on how to expand family shelter capacity later this month. Hernandez added that according to the 2023 point in time count, 81% of families facing homelessness are sheltered. There are nearly 10,000 homeless people living in the county, including 1,226 in families.

The county owns a women and family shelter in Mountain View and a series of additional programs to support homeless families. The county also owns Sunnyvale Shelter, which used to be a family shelter, until last year.

More than a dozen advocate groups signed on to a letter calling on the county to provide more support for homeless families. In it, they demanded that other local cities, such as Sunnyvale and Gilroy, work with the county in opening overnight warming shelters this winter.

More shelter needed

San Jose opened two winter overnight warming shelters in October last year at Roosevelt Community Center and Tully Community Branch Library. Both only serve adults and will close by July. City housing department spokesperson Jeff Scott said that’s because it would be inappropriate to have families with young children sleeping in the same room as single adults. The city has a series of other support systems for families, however, such as temporary housing and safe parking sites — though the city’s only operational safe parking lot has seen varying success.

Group of people standing in front of San Jose City Hall holding signs, front reading "Unhoused special needs kids are being failed by SCC, San Jose and smaller but still capable/culpable cities"
Sandy Perry, an advocate for unhoused residents, said politicians talking about homelessness often overlook families and children. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

In the recent storms, Scott said the city only received one family who needed shelter, which the city was able to provide.

“By taking different approaches to serving families and individuals experiencing homelessness, we are able to use our resources to maximum effect,” Scott told San José Spotlight.

HomeFirst, a nonprofit organization that operates housing programs across the county, has also seen an uptick in demand for services due to the weather.

Bea Ramos, vice president of the nonprofit’s emergency housing division, said while HomeFirst doesn’t oversee the Help4You hotline or waitlist, outreach teams hear about long wait times from unhoused people. She added that the waitlist length differs day by day and is based on the person’s needs. Most recently, she heard there’s a five- to eight-week wait time for families.

“This is a community challenge,” Ramos told San José Spotlight.

Homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright said immediate responses to unhoused people facing crisis has fallen onto the shoulders of advocates, where the city and county should be providing more support.

Sandy Perry, vice president of the board of the South Bay Community Land Trust, said politicians talking about homelessness often overlook families and children.

“This is what homelessness is really about,” Perry told San Jose Spotlight. “Homelessness is about families and children, where the rent is too high and they’re getting priced out of their homes.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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