In Part I of this 3-part series, we examined how homelessness has grown throughout the country and the region, and highlighted some steps that Santa Clara County and the City of Milpitas have taken to address this issue.
In this, Part II of the series, we take a look at some of the non profit, city, and county services offered to the unhoused in an attempt to improve their quality of life. And we explore the camp cleanup efforts initiated by the City of Milpitas.
She’s 60. And homeless. Well, technically she has a home…on wheels. She has been living in an RV for the past 7 years, ever since her husband died of cancer. “We had just bought a condo when he passed away, “ Nicci says. “His mother didn’t like me so they took the condo away from me.” With no other family to turn to, she ended up with the RV as her sole means of shelter and transportation.
“Parking can be a problem,” she admits. “Usually they make you leave all the time. But I got permission from the businesses near me so I have my own parking spot right now. I’ve been there 2 years. I imagine they’ll make me move eventually.”
Nicci admits she has it better than most of the homeless people in Silicon Valley, many of whom live in tents, but there are still challenges. “I can’t use my bathroom because I’m not near a dumping station. Also, garbage is a problem. I’m too embarrassed to put it outside, so it ends up piling up inside the RV. I basically live in trash.”
Nicci loves her RV because she can have pets. At one time she had 5 cats and 4 dogs. Now it’s down to 2 cats and 2 dogs. “My neighbors say I have too many pets,” she says. “Somebody just took one of my cats, so I’m trying to get her back.”
Nicci is hoping things get better, but she’s not optimistic. She’s afraid that if she moved to more permanent housing, her pets would abandon her. “I don’t remember what it’s like to live in an apartment anymore,” she admits.
Like many of the unhoused, Nicci relies on local non profits for food. “If it weren’t for Sleeping Bags for the Homeless Silicon Valley (SB4THSV), I’d have trouble getting food.” Every two weeks, SB4THSV sets up a distribution site, usually near a homeless encampment. They receive donations from the community, and give out those donations to the unhoused; they include food and water, sleeping bags, and any other supplies that they may need (see our article on SB4THSV here). Another group, recently formed in 2020, is HOPE for the Unhoused, whose mission is to provide outreach, information, and resources to homeless people throughout the city while advocating on their behalf. These concerned Milpitas citizens have been distributing food and other essentials on a weekly basis since August (see our article on them here).
Gilbert, an unhoused community member whom we introduced in Part I, echoes Nicci’s sentiment: “I’m really grateful to those groups who come out and provide food and goods. It’s little gestures like that that go a long way. Without them, life would be much more difficult. Yes, there are food banks and kitchens, but they are few and far between, and a lot of people can’t travel very well. These people who do outreach, who come out on their own time…they’re the real saviors. Unfortunately, they represent a very small percentage of the total population.”
In 2017, the Milpitas Police Department received grant funding to create a Homeless Outreach Team. This team provides homeless encampments with essential supplies such as nourishments kits, hygiene equipment, clothing, blankets, temporary housing vouchers, travel vouchers, bus tokens, and referral information for shelters. And they work with the county’s Mobile Crisis Response Team to help transport those homeless residents with mental health issues to Valley Medical Center Emergency Psychiatric Services.
The Homeless Outreach Team has had some success, but the problem is much too big for them to make any real progress on it. In the past year, their deployments have been further limited by COVID-19 safety protocols. But while the pandemic has exacerbated the homelessness problem, it has also sparked renewed interest in social reform. A spotlight now shines on homelessness like never before, and with it has come a renewed commitment by cities and counties to try and do more to affect change.
In September, 2020, as part of the Community Plan to End Homelessness (introduced in Part I), the City of Milpitas created several new inter-departmental working groups to help identify gaps in service and establish partnerships with local non-profits. Deeply involved is Councilmember Karina Dominguez, who helped broker a $200,000 contract with Santa Clara County to start immediately assessing the homeless population in Milpitas on a case-by-case basis, referring them to appropriate housing programs and other services. Assessments began in March, with help from the county’s Homeless Engagement and Access Team (HEAT) and Abode Services, a non profit that preaches “Housing First” — the idea being that if you give them a home, the services that follow will be much more effective. “The biggest challenge with the unhoused community is building a rapport with them so that they trust us with their story, their information, and their needs,” Dominguez said.
The goal of the HEAT team is to serve 100 homeless individuals over the course of the next year. At a May 18 city council meeting, staff gave their first monthly tracking report of these assessments, as requested by newly appointed Councilmember Evelyn Chua. In April they began outreach to 18 locations in Milpitas (13 encampments and 5 vehicles/trailers/RV’s). These sites include Hillview Bridge, the Serra Center, Railroad Court, Hammond Way, Coyote Creek, Topaz Street, Sinclair Frontage Road, and the Calaveras Boulevard Overpass, among others. So far, they have enrolled and assessed 26 clients out of a total of 64 that have been counted.
As part of this effort, in December, 2020, the Milpitas City Council directed staff to implement a mobile shower and laundry service provided by WeHOPE’s Dignity on Wheels. The six-month pilot program launched in March and will be available every Sunday at a site just south of the library. This is another access point where the HEAT team can conduct outreach. Said Councilmember Chua, “Milpitas is a small city and we don’t have much money. That’s why it’s important for us to partner with the county and other agencies to solve this problem of homelessness. Our goal is to help one unhoused person at a time, one couple at a time, one family at a time.”
CLEAN UP YOUR ACT
When the pandemic hit, many cities put a hold on their regular sweeps of homeless encampments, as mandated by the CDC. With no sweeps, no cleanup efforts, and an increase in the homeless population, trash began to pile up quickly in many places. The City of Milpitas was no exception. In response to the numerous complaints by residents, Chua asked staff to put together a flyer that would help explain which agency is responsible for each area of the city with a trash problem. Said Chua, “That was, and still is, my number one priority — making sure we clean up our city. Not only is the trash unsightly, but it’s not safe, for the unhoused, or for the rest of us as well.”
Public streets and parks, and private property, fall under the jurisdiction of the city. Residents are encouraged to use the city’s MyMilpitas app to upload photos and report trash in these areas. The other four jurisdictions and corresponding agencies are: (1) Freeways (I-880, I-680, State Route 237), including on/off-ramps and under bridges — CalTrans; (2) Montague Expressway — Santa Clara County; (3) Rail Lines — Union Pacific; and (4) Creeks, Creek Trails, and under Creek Bridges — Valley Water. Residents with complaints can refer to the flyer published herein for contact information.
Camp cleanups began in January. The City of Milpitas reached out to the other agencies, most of which have their own cleanup crews, to help coordinate efforts. Careful attention was given to alerting the camps ahead of time in the wake of recent lawsuits filed by homeless individuals against CalTrans for seizing and throwing away their possessions. Chua remembers being invited two years ago (she was on the Milpitas Planning Commission at the time) by the Santa Clara County Water District to a camp cleanup in San Jose: “They had to give them 72 hours notice. First the San Jose police moved in along with the outreach workers to check if anyone needed medical attention or housing information. Then they sorted all of the debris from personal property, which they brought to a warehouse. The owners had 90 days to claim their items. Now I think that’s been changed to 120 days.”
Councilmember Chua is also interested in introducing a program whereby homeless individuals are paid money for turning in their garbage, much like the “Cash For Trash” program unveiled by San Jose in November, 2020. The first program of its kind in the country, it allows homeless residents to turn in up to five bags of garbage in exchange for debit cards. During the first week of the program, 27 homeless residents at two sites enrolled and collected over two tons of trash. In April, 2021, the town of Elk Grove followed suit, collecting filled trash bags from unhoused citizens who cleaned up their own encampments and giving them gift cards in return. “I’m really excited about this idea, “said Chua.
In Part III of Homelessness In & Around Milpitas, we will take a look at the types of housing available to unhoused residents, the process for getting housed, and upcoming housing projects. And we’ll meet Salvador, a 71-year old divorced, homeless man who gets around in a banged-up little car.