Santa Clara County supervisors approve new homeless task force
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese was the leading vote-getter when results for the state Senate District 15 results were released Tuesday. Photo by David Alexander.

Last year, 161 homeless people died on Santa Clara County streets but some immediate solutions might be on the horizon.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved creating a new task force to help alleviate homelessness countywide by focusing on providing shelter and transitional housing options. In 2015, a similar task force recommended a $64 million investment from the county to address short-term homeless solutions before dissolving in late 2015.

Supervisor Dave Cortese proposed creating the new homelessness task force to address transitional and emergency housing in the county — which has not traditionally been a strong focus as most of the $950 million from the county’s Measure A, an affordable housing bond, has been pegged for long-term housing solutions.

“Focusing on transitional housing and temporary shelter is long overdue,” Cortese said. “Today, we have called for administration to return to the board with strategies to turn these ideas, many of which came directly from Summit discussions, into action.”

The recommendation approved by supervisors included suggestions from last year’s Santa Clara County Community Summit on Homelessness, such as providing shower areas, more 24/7 safe parking options and creating tiny home communities with on-site services. The summit brought homeless — and formerly homeless — people as well as concerned neighbors together to discuss solutions.

“Civil dialogue, productive dialogue can, in fact, occur in this environment where we find so much tension,” Cortese said during a news conference Tuesday ahead of the vote.

The new task force would include homeless and formerly homeless people, in addition to two Santa Clara County supervisors, a representative from San Jose, two members of the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, a member of the local delegation of the California Legislature, a representative from the Silicon Valley Organization and a representative from the South Bay Labor Council.

The task force will meet until September with final recommendations going to the Board of Supervisors by Oct. 5. The ultimate goal, Cortese said, is to “sunshine” the issue and get the wheels moving toward “more feasible” steps down the road.

However, he said the idea is not to study the homelessness problem — the county has already “studied it to death” — but to eventually take concrete steps, such as those recommended in the summit report.

Homelessness in Santa Clara County, Cortese added, is emblematic of the housing crisis prevalent throughout the Bay Area.

During the news conference, he said not finding immediate solutions for housing the 8,000 to 9,700 homeless people living in the county is “immoral.” Cortese called for the county to explore leveraging state money, as outlined in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent Executive Order, to alleviate the state’s homelessness problem.

Cortese also proposed adding 2,000 more shelter beds countywide in the next 18 months.

Although the longtime lawmaker acknowledged some links between mental health and homelessness, Cortese dismissed the idea that homelessness is a mental health and substance abuse issue — and not an issue of housing — saying that homeless demographics mirror the overall population.

Gail Osmer, a homeless advocate for more than 30 years, said the majority of homeless people she interacts with do not have substance abuse problems.

“I am happy this might happen, and I hope it does happen. I’m out there, and I see the injustice that’s going on every day… we need something now,” Osmer said about the new task force. “The system is not working.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg called the task force “deeply necessary,” saying it will fill a gaping hole. She called homelessness “quite possibly the most critical issue we are facing right now.”

Many residents also voiced agreement with the proposal Tuesday.

“We are talking about human life here, and I think that as a collective, as a species, we are losing that,” said Paul Soto, who recited a poem about homelessness during the board meeting. “We are losing our humanity under the weight of apathy and indifference. That scares me as a citizen.”

But others disagreed, saying a task force is another way for government to turn its wheels instead of actually doing anything productive.

“It’s another delay tactic. I think it is going to take years for anything to materialize,” said Scott Largent, a longtime homeless advocate. “It is just going to be like beating a dead horse again. I want to see things start happening now… I want to see you start pulling people out of that grief right now.”

Contact David Alexander at d.todd.alexander@gmail.com.

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