Silicon Valley leaders discuss challenges of preventing homelessness

On the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom called the homeless crisis a “stain on the state of California,” San José Spotlight hosted a homeless prevention panel discussion at Forager in downtown San Jose, with prominent local public policy officials and homeless housing advocates featured as panelists.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, Erin Stanton, director of family assistance at Sacred Heart Community Service, Ky Le, the county’s director of supportive housing, and Jennifer Casel, the East Side Union High School District’s student services coordinator, served on the panel which focused on helping families on the brink of homelessness. The event was held in partnership with Silicon Valley at Home as part of Affordable Housing Week.

Several dozen residents throughout Silicon Valley filled the seats to hear the panelists discuss some of the region’s most pressing issues: what’s being done to prevent homelessness, what more is there to do, what struggles local agencies face in combating homelessness and more.

After introductions, Cortese opened the first topic of the night by explaining the county’s resources available for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness — namely, the county’s voter approved Measure A from 2016, which is a $950 million affordable housing bond.

Measure A expanded the county’s “bucket of money” to acquire land and build housing for the county’s extremely low-income earners, first-time home buyers and those experiencing homelessness. The measure was also a promise to coordinate throughout the county with city governments and housing agencies to attack the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis.

“The first thing we do is address the immediate housing crisis,” Stanton said, adding that Sacred Heart often helps in emergency cases with rent money and other financial assistance. Then the process moves into case management, and more permanent housing assistance with the resources they have.

The county’s office of supportive housing has “resource limitations,” Le said, and “really what it comes down to is individuals are not able to afford rents that are available now.”

But what about barriers for preventing homelessness? And are the homeless and housing crises in the region getting any better?

Cortese said wages are stagnant and that a “tsunami” of job growth from Silicon Valley’s technology sectors plagued the area by shooting up rents without wage increases for non-tech workers. The longtime lawmaker said job creation in the region has “almost exponentially” outgrown the area’s available housing, adding that “we’re already hundreds of thousands of housing units behind” where the supply needs to be.

Gentrification and rising rents can be blamed partly on tech companies, Cortese said, for “de facto redlining,” noting that “not enough” is being done to combat it. He also stressed the importance of treating those on the streets with mental illnesses with compassion, instead of criminalization, blaming “NIMBYism” for the area’s lack of access to many resources.

“The problem is getting worse,” Le said, adding that “more people are in poverty now” than years before, with the area’s lowest earners being disproportionately affected — which includes seniors on fixed incomes.

He said the region is slowly “moving the needle,” but filling vacant properties could help combat the crisis.

“I support exploring every measure that is going to relieve the stress on our community,” Le said. “If you have vacant units, we’d like to rent them.”

And barriers are many, panelists acknowledged.

For Sacred Heart, Stanton said the first barrier is that people don’t know how to physically access services, they’re unable to get to the nonprofit’s office or don’t have the proper documentation to receive the services they desperately need in an immediate emergency.

“When you’re in a crisis, it’s definitely hard to pull all of those together at that time,” Stanton said.

For area students and their families, Casel said her district has ramped up training so staff can recognize “wellness triggers” for families on the brink of homelessness — like in instances when a child who complains about being hungry, wears the same clothes or looks unkempt.

But one of the greatest barriers for at-risk families is coming forward to ask for help, Casel said, noting that many fear losing their kids to Child Protective Services.

“The system is flawed in that we do have a lot of families that are afraid to come forward,” Casel said. And though they have resources, like programs offering three meals a day for students, “we could always use more.”

Panelists took questions from the audience for about 15 minutes. One of the questions came from an attendee who asked if there’s a structural way, such as a tax, to distribute and dedicate major corporate profits into the region’s most needing communities, and whether or not that would involve engaging the area’s tech companies more.

“Depending on the good will of a company or a person to choose to put their money into something is a really hard prospect and it’s not going to get the results that we need,” Stanton said.

Instead of waiting for tech companies to contribute mass amounts of money or trying to solve homelessness individually, she urged the community to advocate for more engagement and contributions to solving homelessness with immediacy.

“We have to decide as a community how we want to invest the resources in the law of our community,” Stanton said, “and that’s what we do through our government and our tax policy and our budget decisions.”

Contact Kyle Martin at kylebmartin96@gmail.com or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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