San Jose sees homeless population grow
Tony Payer, a resident of the sprawling homeless encampment near Columbus Park, is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose saw its homeless population grow 11% during the pandemic despite investments in housing and enhanced safety measures, with some advocates saying the reality on the ground is even bleaker.

New data released this week shows the total number of unhoused residents in San Jose is 6,739, an 11% increase from the 2019 Santa Clara County tally of 6,097. The county has seen a 3% increase in its homeless population since 2019, totaling 10,028 people. This is the highest number of homeless residents since 2007 by an astounding 39%.

While the numbers of unsheltered homeless people are down in both the county and San Jose, the South Bay is reporting more chronically homeless cases—where people can’t escape homelessness for more than a year. In San Jose, that’s an increase from 1,553 people to 1,906.

The data, conducted by Applied Survey Research, comes from the biennial survey known as the “point-in-time” homeless count. More than 200 volunteers scoured streets, tents and underpasses to physically count unhoused residents during the two-day event earlier this year. Six Bay Area counties released preliminary data this week. Santa Clara County is expecting to release its full report in July.

The homeless count is part of a federal requirement for Santa Clara County to receive funding, but advocates and experts have long warned the tally is guaranteed to be an undercount. The county opted to defer the 2021 count due to COVID-19 and postponed this year’s count by a month.

Shaunn Cartwright, a homeless advocate with Unhoused Response Group, spent hours driving around the county for the tally. She also organized efforts to conduct surveys for the tally. Cartwright said the number doesn’t reflect the reality and homeless encampments have grown beyond what was captured in the report.

“These numbers are a little difficult to believe,” Cartwright told San José Spotlight. “It does not match what we see on the streets.”

Scott Largent, an unhoused person turned advocate, also thinks the actual numbers are higher. He said areas outside of San Jose might be undercounted.

“People are sleeping in cars and RVs around Los Gatos, I don’t know if they were counted,” Largent said, adding many people have moved deeper into trails and creeks and are unlikely to be included in the tally.

San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S., is facing a reckoning with its homeless crisis that has exploded in recent years. In 2019, the city saw a 40% jump in the unhoused population—from 4,350 to 6,097.  Santa Clara County experienced a 31% jump during the same period from 7,394 to 9,706.

Advocates and unhoused people said the crisis has only gotten worse with the pandemic upending the lives of thousands of people in Silicon Valley. Homeless camps of various sizes have popped up across the county, and the number of unhoused people dying has hit unprecedented levels this past year.

San Jose and Santa Clara County are racing to build more housing and invest more in homeless prevention measures through a number of initiatives, including Measure A, the $950 million housing bond voters in 2016. Since 2020, Santa Clara County reported 6,890 people have been lifted off the streets and into stable housing.

Officials are hailing the latest count results as a sign of progress in their years-long efforts, crediting the increase in shelters and interim housing across the South Bay to its success. San Jose built several tiny home communities resulting in roughly 300 beds during the pandemic. Santa Clara County saw a 30% increase in sheltered homeless people, while San Jose saw a 74% increase.

“The fact that we did not see a major increase in homelessness in the past three years really speaks to the heroic efforts of our community to protect our lowest-income and most vulnerable residents during the pandemic,” Miguel Márquez, chief operating officer for the county, said in a statement.

The county also managed to cut down on youth homelessness by 38%, while San Jose saw a decrease of 42%.  More families have fallen into homelessness since 2019, the tally shows. San Jose saw a 34% increase for households, as the county works on a campaign to address the issue.

Still, residents are falling into homelessness faster than the county can house them—for every person connected to housing, two more experience homelessness for the first time.

"While I am heartened to see our investments begin to pay dividends with fewer people on our streets, we must do more," Jacky Morales-Ferrand, director of housing for San Jose, said in a statement. “We must continue investing in the development of new affordable housing, and we must do everything in our power to prevent our neighbors from falling into homelessness.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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