A report was released in July by Santa Clara County that provides a comprehensive analysis of data compiled by a census and survey of homelessness in the county. The report was authored by Applied Survey Research, which has been conducting the survey since 2007, and worked with the County, municipal authorities, organizations and volunteers to carry out the “point-in-time” counts on Jan. 29 and 30. Some community members who themselves were experiencing homelessness also functioned as surveyors and guides to help complete the report.
The numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness in the county has gone up considerably. In 2007, the survey found that there were 7,202 sheltered and unsheltered people without permanent housing living in the county. In 2015, that number was 6,556, and in 2017 the county revealed 7,394 people. The count for 2019 has risen to 9,706 individuals without homes — a 31 percent increase from 2017, the highest jump in a decade. Only 22 percent of those surveyed were living in a shelter, while 65 percent were living outdoors, in vehicles or structures not intended for habitation.
The report provided a city-by-city breakdown of the point-in-time count with the highest number in San Jose with 6,097 individuals. Gilroy had a count of 704 people experiencing homelessness, Sunnyvale 625, Mountain View 606, Santa Clara 326, Palo Alto 313, Cupertino 159 and Milpitas 125. Between 2017 and 2019, Sunnyvale had the largest increase — 147 percent — with Milpitas’ count increasing by 89 percent. The City of Santa Clara and the City of San Jose had increases of 20 percent and 41 percent respectively.
“Unstable living conditions, poverty, housing scarcity, high cost of living, low wages, and many other issues often lead to individuals cycling in and out of homelessness,” stated the report’s authors. “For many, the experience of homelessness is part of a long and recurring history of housing instability. Local data and reporting from outside the Census and Survey suggest that Santa Clara County sees large numbers of individuals experiencing first time homelessness.”
The report also illuminated that since 2017, there’s been a large increase in the number of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness for the first time. Of the respondents who said that it was their first time being without permanent shelter, 12 percent were under the age of 18, and 23 percent were between 18 and 24 years old.
Most of those surveyed — 81 percent — said that they had a former residence in Santa Clara County prior to becoming homeless. Fifty-seven percent said that they had lived in the county for 10 or more years. Forty-two percent had a psychiatric condition and 45 percent had either a physically or mentally disabling condition.
“The primary cause of an individual’s inability to obtain or retain housing can be difficult to pinpoint, as it is often the result of multiple inter-related causes,” the report stated. “An inability to secure adequate housing can also lead to an inability to address other basic needs, such as healthcare and adequate nutrition.”
Among several causes resulting in homelessness such as alcohol and drug use, divorce/separation and eviction, 30 percent attributed their situation to job loss. Although the county’s unemployment rate in January was at 2.9 percent, the rate doesn’t capture all types of unemployment or address underemployment. The unemployment rate among homeless survey respondents was 82 percent, down from 92 percent in 2017. Despite a portion of respondents reporting part-time, seasonal or full-time employment, the earnings from those jobs weren’t enough to cover basic expenses, as 65 percent of those employed made less than $1,100 per month.
The high cost of living in the region persists as a barrier to gaining housing for many, with 66 percent of those surveyed attributing the inability to afford rent as the greatest obstacle to finding permanent housing.
In addition to helping promote understanding of the homelessness issue facing the region, the report is also used to help gain federal funding. Santa Clara County currently receives $26 million from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide homelessness services such as meals. The point-in-time counts are used in the application for such funds.
A friend of mine, who has been homeless off and on for at least two decades, insists that well-run homeless encampments with toilets, showers, computers and wifi, and on-site case managers who can get people connected with the physical and mental heath help they need, would be a great start. Residents would be required to maintain the encampment with a carefully crafted set of enforceable rules. There would be security. She herself has a small RV in decent condition, and as a homeless person she managed to get herself an AA degree in Arizona (with top marks) while living on food stamps and parking in national forests, knowing and meticulously following the Forest Service rules for campground management and length of continuous stays. That was in the post dot com recession. Since then she’s mostly found work for at least part of the year, and places where her RV was tolerated, if not welcome. But she suffers from several chronic illnesses, is on the Autism Spectrum, and has trouble working continuously more than half a year without many weeks of downtime at the end.
Homeless people are PEOPLE, and abject poverty is damned hard to escape from. We should be supporting our fellow citizens rather than dismissing them, as unwanted, lazy, useless, etc.