Shaw: Timing out—where do we go from here?
The Sunnyvale homeless shelter is open year-round and serves up to 140 people. File photo.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it exposed the flaws in the methods used to address the homelessness crisis. It left communities—local, state and national—scrambling to find food, shelter and safety for the most overlooked and most critiqued members of society.

Organizations who specialize in the business of homelessness tout the metrics of how many unhoused families, men, women, young adults and elderly they help get housed, without including the policies hindering people who need housing. One of those policies is the method of timing individuals out of homeless shelters.

I’ve never understood shelter providers timing out individuals they’re supposed to be invested in helping. Giving an individual three to six months to find housing—after being out on the streets for however long—creates a revolving door back to the streets. COVID was able to turn that revolving door into a one-way street through the creation of emergency shelters and hotel programs. COVID also put a stop to the timing out of individuals, at least for a little while.

The number of shelter beds available in the county was on a positive trend over the past few years, peaking at 2,336 during 2020. As emergency shelters began closing in 2021 that number decreased to 2,227. With the closure of more emergency shelters and the ending of hotel programs, the amount of available beds is estimated to be down 400-500 this year. Forcing individuals back on the streets through the timing out process just adds to an already bad situation, especially with the lack of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing available.

According to a February Mercury News article, Santa Clara County, at the time, had housed 6,000 individuals in the prior 22 months. The Point in Time count, a survey of unhoused people performed the same month, shows a 3% increase in homeless individuals over that same time period. The 10,028 homeless individuals living in the county is a moderate increase from prior years, but it’s still an increase. I personally think these numbers are understated because I see plenty of parking lot dwellers in places I stay overnight.

According to Destination: Home, in 2019, the county counted 4,771 unhoused people who reached out for services for the first time. That number was 3,403 in 2020 and 3,172 in 2021. The COVID eviction and rent moratoriums definitely had a factor in these figures. And just because people didn’t reach out doesn’t mean they didn’t become homeless.

Nonprofits have a greater responsibility to the clients they serve. So if timing out policies are used, at least make sure the clients are placed in a position to succeed.

I stayed at Montgomery Street Inn, run by LifeMoves, and though I didn’t agree with the timing out policy, I did appreciate the fact that an actual program was in place.

First it was a sober living environment, and individuals were required to have some sort of income—general assistance, employment, social security, disability—half of which had to be saved each month. That half was given to and saved by the program and provided back upon exit. Individuals would come and speak about job placement opportunities. Self-improvement workshops and housing searches were mandatory. Addiction treatment groups met at the shelter.

In the Sunnyvale shelter, there’s no program like that. The reason for not having a program that requires individuals to do anything or participate is a low barrier one, which I definitely don’t agree with. If the clients you bring into the shelter are dealing with substance abuse issues, bring in professional help for your clients. If you bring in clients with mental health issues that require more than regular care, bring in professional help for your clients. If there aren’t enough professional resources available, then push the county to fund these programs to provide help for your clients. That’s a greater responsibility of nonprofit shelter providers.

I do believe if someone is capable of being employed, then they should try to work and save money. Timing out clients who have not been provided the opportunity to succeed is disingenuous if you haven’t really tried to help them. Life skills and tools are necessary for people to get out of homelessness. Timing individuals out and sending them back to the streets with no skills, income or potential for success basically guarantees they will remain homeless. It’s also unrealistic to expect individuals to get housed when there isn’t enough housing available for the other 10,000 unhoused people in the county.

I don’t know what the rationale is for timing out individuals from shelters. Probably a metric pushing how the county, cities and nonprofits determine funding. There is a large population of elderly individuals in the Sunnyvale shelter—about 70% of the clients—and even thinking about timing them out would show a basic lack of care. Maybe that’s just it, a lack of care.

When I was kicked out of the Sunnyvale shelter, officially called denial of services, I went through the appeals process over the decision, twice. I didn’t really think the decision would be changed, because rules are rules. And I’m more capable than most when it comes to living on the streets. I also didn’t try to explain my way out of the punishment, or bring up past deeds done for the shelter—although another advocate did—because rules are rules.

My argument is, if you provide written rules to clients upon entry, then written consequences should be provided also. If not, decisions can be viewed as arbitrary. Therefore it wasn’t a surprise that my appeal was denied, twice. It was a jaw dropping surprise to hear HomeFirst management say, “I don’t care if Jerome is in that bed, or somebody else is in that bed. Just as long as that bed gets filled.”

That basically sums up the conflict between an organization saying this is “where homelessness ends” while also thriving on a business model that says otherwise. A basic lack of care.

Jerome Shaw is an unhoused advocate for the homeless and previously lived at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s 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]

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