As Homelessness Rises in Many Parts of California, Counties Search for Solutions

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Many California’s counties reported having more homeless residents this year, according to the 2019 Point in Time surveys, which aim to count the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night. 

The surveys are completed once every year or two years depending on the county. San Francisco and San Jose counties reported increases of 17 percent and 42 percent in the last two years, respectively. Los Angeles County experienced a 16 percent spike since last year. Alameda, Santa Clara, Ventura, Orange and Kern counties also reported having more homeless residents in their 2019 survey.

While a statewide report won’t be available for several more months, last year’s estimate marked the first time in four years that the homeless population in California declined, albeit slightly.

Los Angeles County also reported a slight decrease in 2018 from the previous year. Even though the downward trend didn’t continue into 2019, the county’s increase is still markedly lower than the rates in nearby Kern and Ventura counties (50 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively). Los Angeles County has been aided by a sales tax approved by voters in 2017 that is raising approximately $355 million annually for homeless services. 

San Diego County reported that it’s homelessness rate decreased from last year. Some counties, such as Sacramento, have not released data yet. 

As local governments try to find housing for homeless residents, and the tech sector offers additional funding, California advocates said successful efforts will take into account a person’s background and provide social support. 

It’s not always as simple as giving someone a studio to sleep in, said Stephanie Demos, chief development and communications officer at HomeFirst, a Santa Clara County nonprofit that offers shelter for those experiencing homelessness. She said that while increasing housing stock is imperative, it’s far from the only solution. People who are accustomed to living without homes or in emergency shelters for extended periods of time do not always adjust well to a new place, as they’re often disconnected from certain relationships or a familiar environment.

If you’ve been given a studio apartment to live in by yourself, that’s got to feel really strange,” Demos said. “We have people who get housed after being in institutional settings for a very long time and die quickly.”

Roberto Hernandez, a resident advocate at HomeFirst’s Boccardo Reception Center, said residents often make strong social bonds when living in the facility, even though they only stay for six to nine months at most. The Episcopalian pastor was homeless upon emigrating from Mexico and stayed at the shelter for three weeks when he first moved to the Bay Area. Even though to outsiders, it’s just a temporary facility, he said it’s responsible for many meaningful connections.  

“It’s family,” Hernandez said. “It’s not just a building. It’s the fact that within a month, you can create relationships.”

Permanent supportive housing has become an increasingly common way to provide people with both shelter and social services. This type of intervention gives residents individualized support, such as mental health counseling or job training, and there is usually no time limit on their stay. However, between building costs and services, it comes with a hefty price tag. Villas on the Park, San Jose’s newly approved permanent supportive housing complex, will cost approximately $469,000 per unit to build. Operating these types of facilities can run over $30,000 per bed annually. 

The cost is just the first hurdle though. In 2016, Santa Clara County residents approved a $950 million bond to provide affordable housing and support services for people who have extremely low incomes. But when the city of San Jose approved Bridge Housing Communities–a network of tiny, cabin-like pods for homeless residents–many neighbors vehemently opposed construction and the project was delayed.

But despite the challenges, there are signs that supportive housing is gaining traction. According to a recent Bay Area Economic Council report, San Francisco added 4,500 units between 2011 to 2017 and has more permanent supportive housing per resident than any other U.S. city. And even though only two out San Jose’s 10 proposed housing pods have been approved so far, Demos remains optimistic that the idea will start to catch on.  

Demos wants people experiencing homelessness “to learn how to build community, and then we want the community around them to embrace it too,” she said. “And hopefully, my dream is that it’s so successful that other districts are like, OK, well, maybe.” 

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