San Jose turned South Hall into a temporary shelter for unhoused adults during the pandemic. Photo by Rachel Leven.
San Jose turned South Hall into a temporary shelter for unhoused adults during the pandemic. Photo by Rachel Leven.

    Santa Clara County made strides in housing its unsheltered residents during the pandemic. Now county officials want to make sure it doesn’t backslide as the region prepares for a post-pandemic future.

    With the help of emergency federal and state funding, the county’s Office of Supportive Housing provided shelter to more than 5,500 households over the last year. COVID-19 accelerated the sense of urgency in addressing homelessness, county officials said.

    In 2015, Santa Clara County adopted the first Community Plan to End Homelessness and housed more than 14,000 individuals up to 2019.

    Last fall, the county and its cities adopted the latest plan to address homelessness. The five-year roadmap aims for a 30% reduction in homeless residents by 2025 and to double temporary housing and shelter capacity, among other targets. The plan places emphasis on tracking progress on racial inequities in the homeless population.

    A study from January 2020 found Black and Latinx residents are disproportionately homeless in Santa Clara County. While they comprise 2.5% of the total population, they make up almost 17% of the unhoused population. Those who identify as Hispanic or Latinx comprise 43.7% of the unhoused population and 27% of the general population.

    2020 forced the county’s supportive housing system to expand rapidly. Its homelessness prevention programs, which serve households that have shelter but teeter on the brink of becoming homeless, served 1,500 households last year—500 more than 2019.

    The county’s emergency shelter bed capacity increased by 700 beds last year as well.

    There are still struggles, including meeting targets set with the Measure A housing bond and concerns about the “eviction time bomb” that housing advocates say will detonate when eviction moratoriums end this summer.

    “A statement of the obvious: no matter how much we do and how much the county has done… we find ourselves farther behind by virtue of larger forces out there in the community which are a significant degree beyond our control,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian during a committee meeting Thursday. “I imagine that’s more than a little frustrating for the folks doing the work and it’s tough frankly to avoid burnout when you feel you’ve given 110% when things don’t look better, they look worse.”

    Office of Supportive Housing Deputy Director Kathryn Kaminski acknowledged the county’s fighting an uphill battle.

    “We will have to accelerate and house even more in the years ahead to reach (our housing) goal in 2025,” Kaminski said.

    Supervisors Mike Wasserman and Simitian both expressed concerns that some of the progress made last year was possible through the use of one-time emergency pandemic funds. Last year, the county and its cities received $60 million from “Project Homekey”—a state program that helped municipalities turn hotels into temporary shelter for the homeless.

    The county purchased four hotels with the state’s allotted emergency funding and added more than 400 temporary shelter units to the region’s housing stock. Over the course of the pandemic the department added a total 800 emergency shelter beds.

    “You all had to go out and create new shelter opportunities (during the pandemic),” Simitian said. “And as the pandemic, I hope, winds down I’m worried we’re going to lose most of that shelter capacity you’ve managed to create.”

    Simitian asked what the county could do to maintain some of the temporary shelter units so they don’t disappear after the pandemic ends.

    Supportive Housing Director Consuelo Hernandez said her department is in the early stages of recreating the Project Homekey model. She added that her department is also focused intensely on the goal of doubling emergency shelter capacity as soon as possible.

    “We‘ve had several cities reach out to us, thinking about replicating a possible Homekey round two… by identifying a hotel, and starting community engagement early on,” Hernandez said. “We can apply some of the lessons learned from the fast pace when the first round of Homekey dollars came in and (make) sure we apply that now.”

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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