Shaw: Santa Clara County needs sober shelters
Jerome Shaw says homeless shelters are not one size fits all. Photo courtesy of Jerome Shaw.

This summer, I was fortunate to be chosen to be on the Unhoused Task Force, whose purpose is to formulate emergency solutions to aid with the homeless crisis Santa Clara County is facing.

Improving the quality of life for individuals who are living unsheltered — those in encampments, on the street, in parks, under freeways, by creeks, in RV’s or safe parking in their vehicles — is critically necessary.

It’s undeniable these homeless individuals require drastic improvements to their quality of life, and the county has a duty to ensure the health and safety of each person who resides in its borders. Sanctioned encampments are a great first step, but my focus, however, is on the quality of life for those who are sheltered while being homeless.

I reside in Sunnyvale in a shelter which houses families, single men and single women. It is considered a low-barrier shelter. No one is denied. Even if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffer significant mental or physical health issues, everyone has access to services.

About a year and a half ago, Sunnyvale was an emergency winter shelter, a place to go during the winter months through March.

If it was still an emergency shelter, then a low-barrier shelter may be appropriate. However, Sunnyvale is not an emergency shelter. It is a year-round  shelter for families, individuals in recovery or out of jail and those struggling with a variety of mental and physical health issues.

Sunnyvale is a place for people who want to get their lives back on track, but that’s hard to do when you have a small group of residents who can disrupt the positive vibes of the environment.

Sunnyvale shelter, which is run by HomeFirst, should become a sober living environment. It should be a place where families don’t have to worry about their children being around drugs or alcohol, or people who become unruly because of mental health issues.

It should be a place where individuals who are struggling to maintain sobriety, and those who have been given a second chance opportunity, can focus. Shelters are not one size fits all.

All HomeFirst shelters are low-barrier, which is not a suitable approach. LifeMoves, another shelter provider, has at least one sober living facility in its portfolio, in addition to a designated mental health location.

Having proper mental and physical health facilities is a serious issue that needs to addressed. HomeFirst does not have properly trained professionals to handle significant mental or physical health cases. The county does not have enough mental health beds or robust addiction treatment programs to assist all county residents, whether they’re homeless or not, who need help.

The county should encourage their nonprofit providers to create sober living shelters within their portfolios. Give those who have been displaced by gentrification or simply down on their luck a sober environment that encourages success. WiFi access would help, too.

There does not have to be a reduction in the type a beds available but rather a restructuring. It is a situation the county and the nonprofits should be considering, especially during this time of COVID-19, where they are filling current shelters with individuals from the closed emergency shelters.

HomeFirst has a great opportunity to make the Sunnyvale shelter its first sober-living facility. By doing so it creates an improved quality of life for its clients by placing the consideration on the person instead of the pocketbook.

Jerome Shaw is 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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