Some skeptical of San Jose’s plan to ‘end’ homelessness
Homeless resident George Villanueva is pictured at Columbus Park. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Santa Clara County has a lofty new goal to “end” homelessness by 2025 but some unhoused residents aren’t convinced.

The effort, called “Heading Home,” is part of a multipronged approach by Santa Clara County, San Jose, the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, tech company Cisco and homeless policy nonprofit Destination: Home—some of the region’s biggest players when it comes to homeless initiatives.

Regional efforts to get homeless people housed have been plagued by delays in handing out Measure A funds and lofty promises to quickly build 4,800 homes. This time however the partners claim it will be different. The county has a windfall of funds through a $950 million affordable housing bond called Measure A plus American Rescue Plan dollars — $212 and $374 million to San Jose and Santa Clara County, respectively, to be divvied up between causes like homelessness and other government services.

Longtime homeless residents and activists say the Heading Home plan is nothing new.

“How long have they been saying they’re going to solve homelessness?” Scott Largent, a homeless resident and activist, told San José Spotlight. Largent has been on a waiting list “for years” for housing, and more than five years for drug treatment. “They want to roll out all these different things and bring in portable showers and toilets and all this other stuff. Just give people a spot for safe parking. They just go too big on everything.”

A row of RVs and trailers in Columbus Park, a homeless encampment in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The program has set a goal to reach “functional zero” by 2025. Functional zero is a term used by homeless organizations to measure how effective housing efforts are. An initiative reaches functional zero when there are more people being housed in a program than there are people asking for housing.

For Heading Home to reach functional zero, it would have to house an estimated 1,200 families in the next year, and then 600 families every year after until 2025.

County officials say they’ve already reached functional zero in similar programs. One example is the All the Way Home campaign, an initiative launched in 2015 that helps homeless veterans get homes through vouchers.

“We’ve had the most success when we identify measurable, targetable populations,” County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “That number for veterans is now functional zero. We’re housing veterans faster than they’re falling into homelessness.”

From 2015 to 2020, All the Way Home housed 1,940 veterans, according to numbers from Destination: Home. In 2020, the program housed 341 veterans, with 259 veterans asking for housing assistance. Since there were more veterans housed than were asking for assistance, the program had reached functional zero.

Officials said this week approximately 600 homeless families have reached out to the county for help and are waiting for housing placements. Another 600 families fall into homelessness every year in Santa Clara County. Seventy-five percent of these families have a female head of household and 62% have children enrolled in school in Santa Clara County.

Difficulties with vouchers

A large part of the approach is relying on emergency housing vouchers to give to homeless families. The Santa Clara County Housing Authority, the organization in charge of handling housing vouchers, including the federal government’s Section 8 program, has been awarded approximately 1,000 emergency housing vouchers to do so.

“We are seeing so many partners coming together saying they’re committed to attacking and ending family homelessness,” David Low, policy and communications director with Destination: Home, told San José Spotlight. “We have a new infusion of resources through new investments made by the state and federal governments, some of which are targeted towards families.”

Still, the vouchers are dependent on landlords who are willing to accept them. In San Jose, how much housing vouchers actually help has become a complicated issue, thanks to the region’s high cost of living and rents.

“The real critical link we need here are landlords who will agree to accept the vouchers,” Ellenberg said. “It’s very important for landlords to understand these are working families, that they’re prepared to pay 30% of their adjusted income and the voucher will cover the rest.”

But if other California cities are any indication, landlords accepting vouchers is a difficult request. According to a Los Angeles Times report in 2019, just under half the people who received a voucher in 2017 never found a place to live before the voucher expired the same year, up from 18% in 2011.

Too long to wait

Steve, another homeless Columbus Park resident, said he’s skeptical about the new plan because it’s hard enough to house individuals — let alone families. He also cited failures with the county’s housing voucher system.

“I signed up about 25 years ago for housing… I was on (the list) for 10 years,” he said.

Another part of the problem, said George Villanueva, an 82-year-old homeless resident, is the county’s housing arrangements come with too many restrictive rules.

“I’ve been living here for almost three years and I’ve been offered housing, but I don’t want to be tied down,” Villanueva said. “They have a lot of rules. You got to be home by a certain time. You can’t do this, you can’t do that.”

For those who haven’t found a spot, they fear the county’s promise will be more of the same.

“The city and county have been doing nothing but making us move from one stage to another,” a homeless resident in Columbus Park who goes by “Chevy,” told San José Spotlight. She declined to give her real name.

Chevy has seen two homeless families around the park in the months she’s been there. Though she can’t speak for those families, Chevy is sure that the program’s promise won’t be coming.

“Then what the hell are they going to do?” Chevy said. “The same thing they’ve been doing. Nothing.”

Editor’s Note: Destination: Home Executive Director Jennifer Loving serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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