In Parts I and II of this series, we looked at how homelessness has grown throughout the country and the region, especially during the pandemic. We explored the definition of homelessness, and looked at some strategies that Santa Clara County and the City of Milpitas are employing to help improve the quality of life of the unhoused.
In this, the final part of this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at housing solutions and the many challenges that homeless people face when trying to secure something that many of us take for granted.
He’s 71. He’s been homeless for the past 7 years, since divorcing his wife. And there were other family problems. “I messed up a little bit,” he admits.
Salvador has lived in San Jose all his life. He has seen how it has changed. “There used to be all these empty fields. It was beautiful. My dad worked in the canneries during the week, and on weekends we’d jump in the car and go for a ride through the countryside. Now there are businesses everywhere. And a lot of greed.”
Salvador lives off of social security and by recycling cans and bottles. He gets his meals mainly through CityTeam, a faith-based non profit, and Sleeping Bags For the Homeless Silicon Valley (SB4THSV). When the pandemic hit, it was tough. “Everything shut down,” exclaims Salvador. “It was terrible. It was much harder to find things.”
Salvador used to get around by bike but fell down and hurt himself. Now, thanks to a friend, he drives a little car. “He let me make payments to him, thank God. It’s a little banged-up, but the engine is good,” Salvador smiles. He helps shuttle his fellow homeless around, usually from their camp to a place providing services. “They’ll usually give me a couple bucks for gas, but unless I really need it I don’t ask. They give it anyways, out of the kindness of their heart.”
And that’s how Salvador operates. Day by day. Little by little. With faith in his fellow human. “One way or another I always find what I need,” he says. His dream is to have a little room with a stove so he can make his own meals.
It’s a simple dream that speaks to the core of the homelessness issue. So why is providing shelter so difficult?
Santa Clara County uses an assessment tool called the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assessment Tool (VI-SPDAT). Basically, it’s a survey that can quickly assess the health and social needs of homeless persons and match them with the most appropriate support and housing interventions available.
The VI-SPDAT has been in common use in communities throughout the United States for the past 10 years, ever since Congress passed the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) in May 2009. It was created primarily as an alternative to the first come, first served model, which many found to be inefficient. Imagine homelessness as a mass casualty event that sends many people to the hospital emergency department: there will be some serious injuries that require immediate intervention, while others may be able to wait to be treated, and some injuries may not need medical attention at all. The emergency department staff will need to identify whom to treat first and why, based upon the best available evidence. This is what the VI-SPDAT attempts to do, in terms of providing solutions to the unhoused. It has also been shown to reduce racial and ethnic disparities among those who receive assistance. Says Councilmember Karina Dominguez, “It’s a fairly complex system. I’m not sure I fully understand it yet.”
Information from the VI-SPDAT is stored in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a secure online database that is accessible to all service providers throughout the region.
Based on their acuity score, applicants are routed to a community queue and then referred to the appropriate housing program. Unfortunately, there are thousands of people in the community queue at any given time, and not nearly enough spaces in housing programs to meet that need. Said Gilbert, a homeless man whom we introduced in Part I, “There definitely needs to be more housing. It just fills up immediately. It’s a difficult and slow process. You have to build it first, then pass it out. I heard that you get priority if you’ve been on the street the longest. Someone told me I should say I’ve been homeless for 20 years or more.”
Indeed, obtaining Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) can be a daunting task because it is reserved for those with the highest acuity scores, who are chronically homeless with some type of disability, including veterans, teachers, nurses, single parents, senior citizens, the disabled, foster youth, victims of abuse, chronically homeless, and individuals suffering from mental health or substance abuse illnesses. It’s akin to achieving the perfect SAT score — only the top 5% qualify. But PSH is the gold standard when it comes to housing solutions because not only does it include a nice apartment, but also longer-term rental assistance, intensive case management, and access to health care and other supportive services.
One prime example of a recent PSH solution is the Hillview Court Apartments in Milpitas (see our story here). Formerly the Extended Stay America Hotel, it was converted into a PSH facility through funding from the state’s Project Homekey, which provided emergency grant funding to help those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a little under 5 months, the hotel was transformed into 132 affordable apartments, each with a kitchenette. They expect full occupancy sometime this month. Says Ray Bramson, Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, “Usually something like this takes 3-5 years to build from the ground up. We were able to create 132 new homes for people virtually overnight.”
The project was not without its share of controversy, however. Voices of Milpitas was born out of public outrage over the deal. Concerned citizens felt like they were left out of the process, and worried about how this new development would affect their neighborhoods. Legal action was threatened when the City of Milpitas failed to take legal action themselves. In the end, their efforts proved futile, but it illustrates the complex nature of providing homes for the homeless population. While residents often feel sorry for those on the street, not everybody wants them living in their own neighborhood. In the dense urban fabric that is the Bay Area, this gives those trying to create new housing very few options.
In November 2016, Santa Clara County voters approved a $950 million Affordable Housing Bond (Measure A), which was designed to fund 120 new affordable housing developments over 10 years. One of these developments is 355 Sango Court in Milpitas, which will offer 101 affordable units upon its completion in August 2023. The key question is: affordable to whom?
Says Bramson, “There isn’t really naturally occurring affordable housing in the Bay Area because rents are just too damn high. The best you can do is housing that is deed restricted, meaning housing that is subsidized by the government where rents are set at or below 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI).”
At 355 Sango Court, 71 of the apartments fall under this category and are reserved for Extremely Low-Income (ELI) households. Yet even then, for people like Gilbert, it is still a tall order. “Even subsidized housing can be a little taxing for those of us on the lower end of the economic ladder.”
ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS
“I was told it takes 6 -9 years to get housed and that there are 8,000 people on the list,” says Councilmember Evelyn Chua, who has been working hard to come up with housing solutions since her appointment to the Milpitas City Council last December. “That’s why I’m really pushing for ADU’s (Accessory Dwelling Unit). It’s the quickest and cheapest way to provide low-income housing.”
An ADU is a secondary housing unit on a residential zoned property with a single-family home, duplex home, or multifamily building already in place, like a guest house or an in-law apartment. According to Chua, as of 2020 there were only 27 permitted ADU’s in Milpitas. Her plan is to increase that number in a big way. Says Chua, “So there are roughly 12,000 single-family homes in Milpitas. If you take half that number, say 6,000, then take just a portion of that, say 1,000 — 1,000 ADU’s in Milpitas would be equivalent to a big development that takes millions of dollars to build!” She has also created the ADU Monday Program, which offers a complimentary consultation to anyone with questions regarding ADU permitting.
Another Milpitas initiative to help increase the amount of affordable housing is the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance No. 297, adopted in 2018. The ordinance requires developers to set aside 15% of a project’s housing units as affordable housing for very-low, low-, or moderate-income households. This is expected to yield about 100 affordable units. But again, the question arises: affordable to whom?
Applicants whose VI-SPDAT acuity score is moderately high are placed in the Community Queue for Rapid Re-housing (RRH) or Transitional Housing. RRH is an intervention designed to help individuals and families that don’t need intensive and ongoing support to quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing. It is a watered-down version of PSH, and includes limited financial assistance and case management. The challenge with RRH, as with PSH, is finding housing.
Many in the Community Queue end up in Transitional Housing while permanent housing solutions are explored. Transitional Housing with case management services is usually provided to specific subpopulations of homeless people — transition age youth, victims of domestic violence, people leaving jail or prison, or people recovering from substance abuse disorders. Transitional Housing is generally provided for a limited time period, depending on the particular program — the maximum duration being 24 months. Transitional Housing requires the program participants to pay a portion of their monthly income for rent and usually provides a temporary rent subsidy for the duration of the program.
The only recourse for those with a low acuity score is to seek help at a local Emergency Shelter. Santa Clara County collaborates with many service providers to operate two kinds of emergency shelters: Year-round shelters and Cold Weather Shelters. While year-round emergency shelters operate all through the year, seasonal/cold weather Shelters provide a respite from the cold weather to homeless individuals and families. The City of Milpitas has helped fund two LifeMoves shelters in San Jose in need of critical repairs.
In January 2020, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese created the Unhoused Task Force. Goals for the group included doubling the number of year-round temporary beds; increasing street outreach, hygiene services, and transportation access; increasing mental health and substance abuse services; and gaining the support of community-based organizations across the county. “Focusing on transitional housing and temporary shelter is long overdue,” Cortese said in a 2020 news conference.
As COVID-19 cases continue to drop and the state begins opening up, some will breathe a sigh of relief and declare the pandemic over. But for many, the economic repercussions will be felt for years to come. This despite multiple stimulus checks and the passing of SB91, which extends the moratorium against evictions to June 30, but does not eliminate the tenant’s obligation to pay their unpaid rent. Rent control is another tactic cities use to try and help Extremely-Low Income households, yet rents can still go up 5-7% each year.
Homelessness remains a difficult challenge. No one city can solve it on their own. It’s going to take a strong collaborative effort between cities, counties, regions, and states to make a difference. Because homelessness knows no borders.
Says Bramson, “We’re dealing with extreme poverty in Santa Clara County, and at the same time we have the highest cost of living in the country. Homelessness, whether you’re in a tent, or in an RV, or living under an overpass, or by a creek, is just a symptom of a much larger issue. It’s the ultimate manifestation of poverty.”