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Mayor commits to eradicating homelessness among veterans

Citing the deaths of two unhoused women in Palo Alto parks two years ago as emblematic of the need to ending homelessness in the city, Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman announced on Friday that as a first step she will sign the White House Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

Holman spoke at the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission’s Homeless Veteran Summit on Oct. 1, which brought together U.S. Veterans Affairs officials, nonprofit service providers, county and city officials, residents and White House officials to discuss housing for Palo Alto and Santa Clara County homeless veterans.

Santa Clara County has the highest number of homeless veterans in the nation despite Silicon Valley’s vast resources and wealth, said Col. Nicole Malachowski, director of Joining Forces, an initiative to support military families started by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. An estimated 718 veterans are homeless in Santa Clara County, according to a 2013 county study.

The initiative seeks to work with local and county government and agencies to bring services, jobs and affordable housing to those in need. So far 629 mayors and nine governors have signed the Challenge.

“Everyone who has worn a uniform has a right to have a home. How we treat our vets is a readiness issue. How we treat them affects our ability to recruit people,” said Malachowski, a 24-year active-duty U.S. Air Force colonel who flew combat missions in Iraq.

Holman spoke to the broader issue of homelessness. The deaths of two women in city parks two years ago was deeply affecting, she said.

“It’s just not acceptable. It’s not acceptable,” she said emphatically. “There’s no issue, there’s no concern that we together cannot solve.”

Holman pointed to the fundraising and creation of the disabilities-accessible Magical Bridge playground, just steps away from the Mitchell Park Community Center where the summit was held, as an example of the Palo Alto community to create an inclusive environment.

Malachowski said that solving homelessness requires tailoring programs to specific communities. There is no “one size fits all,” she added.

The Bay Area’s high housing costs continue to be the biggest barrier to veterans finding housing. In 2014, the VA Palo Alto Health Care System gave out 853 Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD VASH) vouchers in Santa Clara County, but only 604 veterans used them. The remaining veterans could not find affordable housing, Malachowski said.

Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, said that HUD and other federal payment standards are not working in Santa Clara County because of the high cost of housing. The county should identify all available land to determine where affordable housing may be built, and it must seek create ways to build affordable housing.

Ky Le, director of supportive housing for the county’s health and human services agency, agreed, but he noted the problem is complex, considering the high cost of land and lingering misconceptions about homeless veterans.

“The question is not ‘How will it be funded and what services to provide?’ Where is it going to be built? That is the question that is hardest to answer. Whose land? Who is it going to be next to? And how many will be there?” he said.

A survey of veterans in Santa Clara County found the top reasons they became homeless were job loss (32 percent), substance abuse (19 percent), chronic health conditions (18 percent) and divorce or relationship breakup (14 percent), said Janbir Sandhu of Home First, one of the leading providers of services, shelter, and housing opportunities in Santa Clara County. Under-employment continues to be one of the greatest concerns, she said.

One way to get more permanent, supportive housing for veterans is through “Pay for Success” programs, said David Wilkinson, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Pay for Success does not pay out public money until a proposed program is implemented and proves successful. Under the program, a provider or organization wins a government bid, and private sector philanthropists and other investors initially put up the money for the program or project. Once the program is evaluated and deemed successful, the government pays for the project. That money is used to pay the investor, sometimes with a small amount of interest. The investors take the risk if the project does not succeed, he said.

Santa Clara County developed the first “Pay for Success” program in California in August 2013, with support from the Sobrato Family Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, to address housing for the chronic homeless and those suffering from acute mental illness. The county is dedicating nearly $2 million annually for developing and implementing programs that successfully provide supportive housing to these populations.

Santa Clara County’s initial Pay for Success projects would target the county’s top most costly individuals who are chronically homeless and have frequent interactions with medical services and law enforcement. The project would also provide 100 units of permanent supportive housing over the next six years. The projected budget is $12-$13 million, with largest portion, $9 million, covering the cost of housing. The County’s initial non-recoverable investment will be $2 million. The program would also develop intensive coordinated care for the most seriously mentally ill and move them into supportive housing.

Supportive housing programs can ultimately save local governments big money. Denver, Colorado officials identified 300 unhoused individuals and found it cost $11.4 million annually across systems for services if they remained homeless. With supportive housing, that cost dropped to $5.4 million for a savings of $6 million, he said.

A May 2015 study, “Home Not Found – The Cost Of Homelessness in Silicon Valley,” found that the county expended $3.1 billion on judicial and other systems related to homeless persons from 2007-2012 with an average $520 million annually. During that time, 104,206 people, including veterans, were unhoused.

At Friday’s summit, Human Relations Commissioner Medhi Alhassani said that everything possible should be done to help veterans obtain housing and services.

“Personally, this morning I heard that during the shootings in Oregon a veteran jumped in front of the shooter and took several bullets. Even when they come home, they’re still heroes. They’re still taking bullets for us,” he said.

Palo Alto could find ways to engage businesses to hire veterans and perhaps sponsor a job fair. The commissioners plan to discuss the meeting on Oct. 8 during their regular meeting. The commission should be supportive of the Mayor’s Pledge and of finding housing solutions in Palo Alto for veterans.

In December, the committee plans to discuss Santa Clara County’s Community Plan to End Homelessness, a comprehensive roadmap for addressing and eliminating homelessness for the next five years. Their recommendations on how Palo Alto could proceed would be taken before the City Council, he said.

Palo Alto will host a Veterans’ Day recognition ceremony on Nov. 9 from 4-5:30 p.m. at King Plaza in front of City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. The City Council will issue a proclamation at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers.