Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein and Councilmembers Russ Melton, Murali Srinivasan and Richard Mehlinger sitting behind the dais at city hall.
The Sunnyvale City Council declined to renew a $407,430 contract with homeless service provider HomeFirst at the Sept. 26, 2023 meeting over concerns about how the money is being used. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

    Sunnyvale’s contract with its homeless service provider is on thin ice and officials are demanding more answers.

    The Sunnyvale City Council voted 4-3 to not renew the city’s $407,430 contract with HomeFirst at last night’s council meeting. The contract under fire, a one-year pilot program approved in 2022, funds five shelter beds in San Jose—since Sunnyvale doesn’t run its own shelters—and provides supportive services that include helping individuals get identification cards, cellphones and other necessities.

    Councilmembers are giving HomeFirst a six-month extension to provide data on shelter bed usage and outreach services as part of the nonprofit’s continuum of care before the city makes a decision. The extension is also contingent on HomeFirst’s approval.

    Councilmembers Richard Mehlinger, Alysa Cisneros, Linda Sell and Murali Srinivasan voted against renewing the contract. Mayor Larry Klein, Vice Mayor Omar Din and Councilmember Russ Melton voted in favor.

    “Without that information, I really can’t evaluate whether this is an effective use of taxpayer funds,” Mehlinger told San José Spotlight.

    Five shelter beds in San Jose account for $102,200 of the contract. The remaining money—more than $300,000—funds outreach services HomeFirst provides to Sunnyvale’s homeless population.

    Cisneros, who initially supported the pilot program’s launch last year, wants definitive proof that services in the contract are helping homeless residents.

    Cisneros said she has heard complaints about the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose, where the shelter and support services for the pilot program are located, over the past decade from many sources, including her mother, who is formerly unhoused. The facility is operated by HomeFirst.

    “These are concerns that I think, if we are looking to spend money and … this is the housing we’re offering, we should have a critical discussion on if this is the way we want to go and if this would help,” Cisneros told San José Spotlight.

    Sunnyvale has about 385 unhoused residents, according to the 2022 point-in-time count, though county officials said the tally is often an undercount. Santa Clara County has grappled with homelessness for the past decade, as the region’s population continues to grow. As of last year, the county’s homeless population has grown 3% since 2019, totaling 10,028 people.

    City staffers are working to reserve beds at another county-operated shelter located in Sunnyvale. The 175-bed Sunnyvale Family Shelter—which reduced its capacity to 150 beds due to COVID-19—doesn’t permit the city to reserve beds for its unhoused population. Beds are allocated based on the county’s reservation system through the Here4You hotline.

    Nearly every city works with the county-operated unhoused services, with the exception of San Jose.

    Todd Langton, executive director for Agape Silicon Valley and founder of Coalition for the Unhoused of Silicon Valley, said a lot of situations like the one in Sunnyvale arise from the lack of communication across different homeless support services, which creates redundancies and accessibility problems.

    “The whole system is just so dysfunctional and unorganized,” Langton told San José Spotlight. “They get in these separate silos—the cities, the county and then these nonprofits that they dole out millions of dollars to, all working independent of each other.”

    Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing Director Consuelo Hernandez did not respond to a request for comment.

    Homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright said she is looking forward to seeing support service metrics for Sunnyvale in the coming months and does not have high expectations for the outcomes.

    “It is nice to finally see political action taken to hold HomeFirst accountable,” Cartwright told San José Spotlight.

    Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the Boccardo Reception Center was owned by Charities Housing.

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