Silicon Valley is home to many of the biggest technology firms in the world. Names like Apple, Google, Facebook, and eBay are part of Santa Clara County, California’s identity. But unseen amidst the innovation and wealth just south of San Francisco is a large and burgeoning homeless population.
“We have roughly 7000 homeless in Santa Clara County, with 2000 chronically homeless, meaning they’ve been living on the streets for over a year,” says Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, a public-private organization helping to lead the Campaign in Santa Clara County. “San Jose is the county’s epicenter, with 68% of the homeless population residing here.”
In San Jose the homeless aren’t just living on the streets of downtown. Roughly 100 people live along a four mile stretch of Coyote Creek, a river that runs 63 miles from the Diablo Mountain Range through central San Jose, finally emptying into the San Francisco Bay. Though it winds directly through the center of the city, portions of Coyote Creek are relatively isolated, and in recent years this historic watershed has become a major illegal dumping ground and homeless encampment.
“City council leadership and social services have been trying to do something about the encampment problem for years, but the response has traditionally been reactionary,” says Loving. “Rousting the homeless is adversarial; the Police didn’t want to be doing it. Homeless populations were temporarily forced to leave the creek, but with nowhere to go they’d end up back along the banks soon enough. Waste Management was spending time and money on repetitive cleanups. We were focusing on the trash and not looking at the problem. Everyone was frustrated. Everyone knew it wasn’t working.”
So the City of San Jose and Santa Clara Valley Water District joined forces with Destination: Home and Downtown Streets Team to try something new. They assessed the damage being done to the creek area and came up with a unique proposal: mobilize the homeless community by offering social services, employment opportunities, job training, and the ultimate goal of permanent housing to Coyote Creek’s homeless population. In exchange, the homeless residents of the creek would assist with clean up operations, becoming stewards of the creek themselves.
Everyone was willing to try something new, but in order to fund the program to provide housing and services to the most at-risk members of Coyote Creek’s homeless population, they’d need more than just local dollars. So the group approached an unexpected ally in the fight to end homelessness: the Environmental Protection Agency.
Citing the importance of Coyote Creek as an important natural wildlife habitat and source of green space within the city, the group argued that the use of the area as a homeless encampment and illegal dumping ground was seriously affecting the environment from San Jose to the San Francisco Bay. According to Loving, the EPA understood the problem, understood that traditional methods weren’t working, and realized this was something that hadn’t been tried before. So they agreed to launch a pilot program.
The EPA needed a specific amount of matching funds, so the Clean Creeks team secured matching funds from their own organizations as well as the eBay Foundation. With the matching funds met, the EPA accepted the grant proposal and on July 1st, the program — a new model for collaboration on local and federal levels – will begin. When asked how easy it was to convince so many different organizations to get behind the plan, Loving says they were all for it.
“This program is the first of its kind. These are new dollars for homeless communities. But our goals in San Jose are right in line with the Federal Government’s plan to end chronic homelessness. This is part of everyone’s ten year plan.”
This week, as hundreds of people gather for Santa Clara County’s Campaign Registry Week, volunteers will be canvassing Coyote Creek.
“Downtown Streets Team will start doing outreach and cleanup on July 1,” Loving says. “Our initial goal is temporary housing for ten folks. Within two years, we plan to house fifty folks and together restore that area of the creek.”