Shaw: The elephant in the room
Entrance to the Sunnyvale homeless shelter on Hamlin Court. File photo.

I have written about many experiences with HomeFirst. Most of the time it concerned the nonprofit’s rules and policies, and the negative effects these have had on its clients.

Many unhoused advocates knew of these effects long before I did, and they tried to get people to listen and give the unhoused a voice. I witnessed some of the impacts first hand as a resident and tried to be a voice for the unhoused since we often don’t have one.

But grievances from unhoused clients and advocates aren’t taken seriously. How could we possibly know what a specialty nonprofit should do to help the unhoused?

The San Jose City Council has finally noticed the elephant in the room, the elephant that advocates have been frantically trying to get them to see. The elephant that has been here longer than multiple mayors, and who also has a room with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

There is no one else. The city can’t do it and the county doesn’t want to. So we get who we get. Unconscionable.

This “one sheriff town” mentality worked for a long time, because HomeFirst and deputy nonprofits do the dirty work local governments don’t want to do. They get paid to interact with the unhoused, or at least the frontline employees interact with the unhoused. This has allowed our local governments to open the door and welcome in the experts, with decades of experience with the unhoused, and completely defer to them when it comes to all things unhoused. While also leaving any sense of accountability out in the cold, along with the majority of the unhoused population.

Our local governments have been okay with that because nonprofits tout the success their “programs and services” that are available in their shelters, which make the governments feel good and continue funding. Santa Clara County’s government is especially culpable in this by using the nonprofits as makeshift clinics, holding individuals who need medical assistance, mental health and addiction treatment services.

It doesn’t surprise me that housing placement numbers through outreach services are abysmal for homeless nonprofits, because they haven’t been trying to get unhoused people off the streets. They have just been the recipient of Santa Clara County funneling clients to them. So when it comes to really finding clients to help, they don’t know how to do it.

When asked about the less than stellar outreach program performance of the nonprofit after receiving millions of dollars, HomeFirst COO Rene Ramirez replied, “Overall, the agency performed significantly better than that program … It’s important to look at the performance of the organization as a whole and not base comments and decision making for future funding on what was reported on one particular program with one particular priority.”

I think it is especially important to base funding decisions on these particulars. This particular program’s priority is getting the unhoused off the streets.

When the Sunnyvale shelter obtained approval and funding to become a year-round facility, there was a sense of hope surrounding accountability. Even though HomeFirst would be running the shelter, and received millions to do so, then-Supervisor Dave Cortese required HomeFirst to come before the board of supervisors and report on shelter operations, with participation from clients and advocates. This was a time for the unhoused community to inform the board of how the nonprofit was performing, rather than just hearing things from one perspective. COVID-19 erased all that, and it needs to be brought back by the board.

About two years ago when I was attending meetings of Survivors of the Streets, one of the goals was to create an oversight committee for nonprofits specializing in homelessness. This committee would be compromised of county and city employees, advocates, unhoused individuals and those with lived experience who would evaluate the performance of entities receiving governmental funds. I wholeheartedly support this.

I also agree with advocates who have pushed the county and city to solicit services from successful nonprofits outside our local area, to see how success is built. The statewide housing plan has created the need for forward thinking organizations to step up with solutions for the homelessness crisis. Organizations need to adapt and change in this new day and age, because the same old thing isn’t working.

Jerome Shaw is an unhoused advocate residing at the Plaza Hotel run by Abode. He is a neurodivergent individual who seeks to ensure people remain aware of the importance of mental health and mental health treatment in today’s society. Shaw 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. Contact Jerome at [email protected].

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply