To solve a problem, first you have to understand it. That’s what more than 300 volunteers were trying to do while most of us slept last week: Fanning out across Santa Clara County in the wee hours, they conducted a detailed survey of homeless residents. Officials launching a campaign to house 1,000 of the area’s most vulnerable homeless within two years hope this information can revitalize their campaign to end chronic homelessness here.
The homeless are counted regularly; we know how many there are and roughly where they stay. This survey is different because it will result in a detailed database, including names, so agencies can track not just trends but individuals and determine who most urgently needs help. The 33-question survey assesses risk factors like mental and physical illness and substance abuse, so services can be better deployed. It’s a promising addition to the county’s toolbox.
San Jose is one of 85 communities participating in the national 100,000 Homes campaign, which aims to house 100,000 of the most vulnerable by 2013. The campaign continues the local focus on “Housing First”: If you place someone in a home and then provide the right services, rather than trying to treat problems on the street, the person will stay in the home. The simple concept has helped reduce chronic homelessness by about 40 percent nationwide.
And it costs less in the long run. Some cities report saving tens of thousands of dollars per participant by keeping them out of emergency rooms, shelters and jails. But it requires money up front to get people into housing, and that is the biggest challenge.
When the public-private partnership Destination: Home was launched here in 2008, government budgets were in better shape and San Jose’s redevelopment agency was spending millions of dollars on housing. Redevelopment now has no money and might soon cease to exist. Government budgets have been slashed. But a renewed effort to fight homelessness, supported by the private sector and focused on those who now cost taxpayers the most, could save millions of dollars and help government return to providing crucial services.
This is why the county is helping fund a new position to organize existing resources and seek out new ones. Destination: Home, the public-private partnership that is spearheading this effort, is hiring four new case managers. With the more detailed database, this work can be far more effective, said Executive Director Jennifer Loving. And because it’s a very Silicon Valley approach, it’s more likely to attract community support.
Among the 700 or so homeless people surveyed last week was one man whose profile screams out for help. At 71, he lives in his car near Highways 101 and 85, according to Hilary Barroga of the Collaborative on Housing and Homelessness. The man, a veteran, had multiple risk factors for dying on the streets: diabetes, emphysema, liver disease, asthma, mental illness and alcoholism.
But now, case workers know his name and face — and where to find him. Perhaps by next Fourth of July, he will have a home of his own.