Homeless encampment
A homeless encampment along a Highway 101 on-ramp at Story Road is pictured in this file photo. File photo.

    The number of homeless residents is rapidly growing, so much so, that it is outpacing all solutions put forth to end it.

    It is well known that, within Santa Clara County, for every homeless person housed, three more become homeless. I’m afraid that number is likely increasing due to the aftereffects of the pandemic. And based on the 2019 Homeless Census and Survey, more than 80 percent of the 10,000 homeless individuals in Santa Clara County are unsheltered.

    Most cities within the county, and Santa Clara County itself, squandered a perfect gift when Project Home Key wasn’t fully taken advantage of, when the opportunity presented itself. These programs could have been a significant stepping stone, or rather a critical stone in the foundation, for a solution to the homelessness crisis we currently find ourselves in. The 2020-2025 Santa Clara County community plan to end homelessness calls for the county to house 20,000 people through the supportive housing system and double the amount of shelter beds available in the county.

    You can’t house 20,000 people by 2025 when less than 1,000 permanent housing units are in the works. Doubling shelter capacity would approach 4,000 beds by 2025, while the trend of homelessness pushes the homeless population above 13,000 people.

    Given the number of homeless individuals who live outdoors, building snail pace housing, or creating warehouse homeless shelters can’t completely solve the problem. Shelters help to get people off the streets, and transitional housing would work, if there was some place to transition to afterwards — but there’s never enough livable space available for everyone on the streets. There is a lot of outdoor space though.

    When you have been out on the streets for as long as some people, you have to be prepped to transition back into a home environment. And what better way to learn to be part of a housed society, than to start being part of a truly organized community?

    A community where it is normalized to clean up after yourself, have constant access to bathrooms, showers and trash removal. With an organized community, there could be an additional resource to assist the nonprofits, cities and county. There could be a consistent way to actually identify where people are, since they would be allowed to remain in one familiar area (without being swept), and that could help those who are the most vulnerable, or in the greatest need of services.

    We would be able to identify those who have physical or mental disabilities, addiction or substance abuse problems and work with organizations to place these individuals into proper available facilities. Sanctioned encampments can work with nonprofits, cities and the county when it comes to moving individuals off the streets, but there has to be an equal interest from all parties involved to set individuals up for success.

    Moving long-term homeless individuals right from the streets is probably not the best option for everyone, even if a hotel stay is used to prepare them for the transition. Sanctioned encampments can help identify which people could make that jump and which could not. Some people may need to move into a shelter environment with supportive programs, and then move on to tiny homes and eventually to their own place.

    But there has to be programs available for people who need help. Expecting behavior to change without substantive programs isn’t fair, and could make things worse for people. If someone has substance abuse issues, placing them in a shelter that allow people to abuse substances isn’t setting them up for success. And bringing someone into a rules based environment, like a shelter, when they couldn’t care less about rules, won’t work either because it would just transfer over to how much they care about the housing they may receive.

    Nonprofits need to have actual programs and an environment in place that helps people, an environment like sober living shelters.

    A one-size-fits-all shelter, or low barrier shelter does not work, especially if there are no serious programs in the shelter (they are none in Sunnyvale) and following rules are seen as optional to some people. Sure there should be shelters that are low barrier based on the large number of people coming from the streets. But not every shelter. There should be at least one environment where working homeless people (working poor), those in recovery, outpatients and families are given the opportunity to thrive, without unwanted distractions or stress.

    Hopefully the local cities and the county will realize that the homeless population is here to stay, and will continue to grow, though so many wish this wasn’t true.

    Heavy-handed tactics against the unsheltered homeless haven’t worked, and they won’t work in the future. There has to be serious engagement with the homelessness community that is stereotyped and then treated as if they don’t matter. We’ll see how many homeless individuals die in the county this year.

    Jerome Shaw is homeless and living at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s a leader in the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative — a union of homeless shelter residents in the region — and is part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.


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