Changing the conversation around homelessness in Silicon Valley

Jennifer Loving is a Silicon Valley innovator—but not the usual type that comes to mind. Much like many of her techie counterparts, she is an engineer, of sorts, working to change the status quo.

But Loving spent some of her childhood helping her uncle, a minister, feed and shelter the homeless people who lived along the boardwalk in Venice Beach, California.

“I grew up around the idea that you should help people who don’t have a place to live,” Loving said. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

That mantra has followed Loving as she worked with homeless populations for the last 20 years—in homeless shelters, housing programs, and services.

Loving was eventually called to a place where many might think it is impossible to have one of the nation’s highest homeless populations: Silicon Valley. Loving joined Destination: Home, a public/private partnership dedicated to eradicating the epidemic of homelessness in Santa Clara County, in 2010.

“Homelessness is a fascinating, messy, deeply entrenched social issue. Everyone knows someone affected by cancer, for example, but not everyone knows someone who lives under a bridge,” Loving said. “It creates a tremendous disconnect between those who are housed and those who are not.”

Silicon Valley was not living up to its potential, Loving commented—and it became the goal of Destination: Home to understand why thousands of people were homeless in an area synonymous with entrepreneurialism and wealth. Destination: Home embarked on a new approach to tackling homelessness in Santa Clara County by launching the Housing 1000 campaign. Centered on Housing First, its philosophy is simple—provide permanent housing and services to the most vulnerable, long-term homeless people, and do whatever is needed to maintain that housing.

“We started Housing 1000 because we were motivated by system failure,” Loving said, referring to past interventions for homelessness that didn’t include a focus on permanent housing. “We knew housing was the medicine, but how could we supply more of the cure?”

The plan came to fruition with the help of nonprofit providers, coordination with the county, the City of San Jose, the Housing Authority, and most critically, new housing subsidies—Housing 1000 even helped remove the smallest barriers to housing, such as security deposits and furniture.
Loving is proud to report that over 950 people have been housed through the Housing 1000 effort since 2011, with 81 percent of that number still housed today. In Santa Clara County, there has been a 14 percent drop in homelessness since 2013—the lowest rate of the epidemic in 10 years.

Another project Loving oversaw was “Home Not Found,” a report on the cost of homelessness, the result of a six-year cross-sectional study of Santa Clara County’s vulnerable homeless populations. To examine the conditions and costs associated with being homeless, the report gathered 25 million records from more than 104,000 homeless men and women accessing scattered agencies in Santa Clara County. With more information about the most vulnerable homeless men and women in the community, it becomes easier to prioritize people for housing based on their needs and then measure the results.

The report discovered what Loving already suspected: it is much more expensive to not house persistently homeless people. The average annual cost per homeless person in 2012 was $5,148—with individuals who use the top five percent of services averaging $100,000 a year. Public costs associated with homelessness are typically spent on health services and the justice system. Records analyzed for more than 1,000 clients of the Housing 1000 project reflected a potential services cost reduction of more than $40,000 annually once the clients are housed.

As a grantee of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Destination: Home has received operating dollars from SVCF and considers it a strategic partner in ending homelessness in Santa Clara County.

“People think the problem is so massive that we can’t do anything,” Loving said. “But I know we can do this. We must continue to convene the community around strategies and lean on the public and private sectors to increase the supply of affordable housing in our region.”