SAN JOSE — As a series of community leaders spoke Tuesday about the startling half-billion expense of homelessness in Santa Clara County annually, two people sitting in the audience knew first-hand about the toll of living on the streets.
And for the pair, the cost of being homeless isn’t just a number.
Chris Hernandez, 38, sat in a wheelchair because his left leg was amputated due to untreated diabetes while he was living along Coyote Creek. Saline Chandler, 21, is on track to graduate from San Jose State next year despite intermittent bouts of homelessness that included living in her car.
Today, each has housing. And both are examples, according to the new study, of how taxpayer money will be saved in the long run if Silicon Valley does a better job of helping place the persistent homeless in stable, affordable housing.
“Getting people into homes is really the only solution to ending homelessness,” said Chandler, a sociology major. “It just makes sense, doesn’t it?”
The report, “Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley,” argues that it’s also smart public policy. It found that the county spent an average of $520 million between 2007 and 2012, a total of more than $3 billion, on basic services for homeless — culling data that includes emergency room visits and jail stays.
While most people identified in the study were on the streets for relatively short periods of time, the study also found that about 2,800 long-term homeless each cost the county $83,000 annually.
“We’ve never been able to truly quantify the numbers until now,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at the Le Petit Trianon Theatre. “We’re paying $520 million annually just to maintain the status quo. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. So this really is a call to action to change that status quo.”
The study, conducted by Los Angeles-based Economic Roundtable, was commissioned by the county and the non-profit Destination: Home. It tracked more than 104,000 homeless and is billed as the most comprehensive examination ever on the financial cost to a community.
For County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, it’s validation that helping the homeless is not just about doing the right thing.
“We now have data-driven information that homelessness is costing our community a lot of money,” Wasserman said. “Before, it was a theory. We were saying, ‘Trust us, it is.’ But now we have proof. We know what needs to be done. But we’re still figuring out how to do it.”
The homeless community in not monolithic: Everyone’s story is different. But Hernandez and Chandler have personal tales that are emblematic of larger points made by the study.
For instance, it found that $312 million each year is spent on healthcare costs alone. In the case of Hernandez, he describes a four-month hospital ordeal when his leg was amputated.
A San Jose native, Hernandez makes no excuses about how he slipped into homelessness, admitting drugs played a role. As he lived along Coyote Creek for about six years, Hernandez wasn’t able to straighten out his life.
“I got used to it, I guess,” he said. “I would dodge the cops and learned to deal with getting thrown out of a place where I was staying. But I didn’t want to be living that way.”
When a sore on his left foot wouldn’t heal, it eventually became gangrenous because he wasn’t taking his medicine. After losing the leg, San Jose park rangers saw him crawling in and out of a tent along the creek. They connected him to HomeFirst outreach workers, and with the nonprofit’s help he now is living in an East San Jose apartment. He hopes to be reunited soon with his 6-year-old son.
“I’m not the person I was before,” Hernandez said. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity. If I was still down in the creek, I probably would have lost both my legs.”
The study also found that the rate of persistent homelessness among women is higher than men in the county — something that is unusual when compared to national estimates.
Chandler carries herself as a confident young woman with big plans after she graduates from SJSU. But it hasn’t always been that way. A former foster care youth, Chandler struggled with the cost of college. And when she couldn’t make ends meet despite working two jobs, she eventually began living in her car — an old Cadillac.
She would shower at the school’s Event Center and stay at the library until closing time. Sometimes she “couch surfed” with friends. Many people didn’t even know she was homeless. But there was an emotional toll and Chandler occasionally sought emergency mental-health care.
“I went through so much more trauma than a normal student would endure,” she said. “Being homeless is so stressful because society puts such shame on you. When you’re walking around homeless, you’ll just start thinking about walking into traffic or jumping off a bridge.”
Chandler now has an apartment near campus thanks to the help of the InnVision Shelter Network.
“I’m doing great in school, and I’m in a great place with my life,” she said. “It’s so much easier when you have a place to call home.”
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
Cost of HomelessNess in Santa Clara County
Total: $520 million annuallyHealthcare: $312 million
Justice System: $131 million
Social Services: $77 million
Source: “Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley,” a six-year study of more than 104,000 homeless in Santa Clara County between 2007 and 2012