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Bay Area advocates sense change in political, public will to help homeless

Karl Crepsac and Ebony Yates talk with homeless advocate Anthony King Thursday morning, June 23, 2016, in San Jose, Calif.

Karl Crepsac and Ebony Yates talk with homeless advocate Anthony King Thursday morning, June 23, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

SAN JOSE — Anthony King’s time spent living on the streets began with some bad choices he made in his late 20s and lasted a third of his life. But today, the 46-year-old San Jose resident has found a permanent home and a calling as an advocate for the thousands of people in Santa Clara County who remain homeless.

King, who works for Silicon Valley DeBug, serves as a bridge between the homeless and the government, telling public officials what those with no permanent shelter need and advocating for efforts to solve the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis.

Scott Halvorson packs up his belongings from his slashed tent Thursday morning, June 23, 2016, at his campsite on a freeway offramp in San Jose, Calif.

Scott Halvorson packs up his belongings from his slashed tent Thursday morning, June 23, 2016, at his campsite on a freeway offramp in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“I perfectly fit the definition of what is chronic homelessness,” said King, 46, who grew up in Milpitas but has lived in homeless camps from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. “I can tell you that one of the outdated notions out there is that people who are homeless want to be homeless. Or if they’re chronically homeless they’re too far gone on substances or too mentally ill to help, and a lot of times that’s not the case.”

Throughout the Bay Area, cities, counties and nonprofits are employing a range of solutions to provide the homeless with shelter. While the number of homeless people in Santa Clara County has eased in recent years — last year’s count of 6,556 reflected a 14 percent drop from the previous tally — the issue has drawn more attention as the homeless gather in encampments along creek beds and under highway overpasses.

“In a number of communities, homelessness is just more visible now,” said Steve Berg, a policy expert with the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Ending Homelessness. “The encampment phenomenon of people gathering together and forming little communities has made them more visible. They often do it for personal safety, and it’s a natural human response to band together, but it makes them more visible than if they’ve spread themselves around.”

Now, there’s a feeling that something can be done.

“People are seeing that it’s possible to make progress, and success is galvanizing the community,” said Rosanne Haggerty president of Community Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to crafting homeless strategies. “We know we’re not helpless, and know what needs to happen.”

Santa Clara County supervisors last week voted to put a $950 million affordable housing bond on the November ballot that’s aimed at the lowest economic echelon — those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Advocates are calling it a potential game-changer for local efforts, and the priority of low-end housing has been embraced by officials throughout the Bay Area: On Tuesday, Alameda County supervisors advanced a $580 million bond to the ballot for similar purposes, and San Francisco voters approved a $300 million version last November. San Mateo County is currently mulling over something similar, said Amie Fishman of the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California.

Phil Russell holds the note he put on Scott Halvorson’s tent Wednesday morning, June 22, 2016, at his freeway offramp campsite in San Jose, Calif.

Phil Russell holds the note he put on Scott Halvorson’s tent Wednesday morning, June 22, 2016, at his freeway offramp campsite in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“This is such an exciting moment,” said Fishman. “We’re seeing a convergence of political leadership and voter support bringing it to the fore.”

If two-thirds of voters pass the bond — and there’s a lot of people out there depending on that to happen — Haggerty and others said it will need to be matched by an uptick in services for those in need.

“Simply producing a new supply is insufficient to put a dent in the homeless population,” Haggerty said. “You also have to have a well-functioning system that is constantly identifying people who need that support and can help them navigate the housing market and create a whole new space around them.”

For King, that kind of turning point came in 2013 when he got involved with Housing 1000, a community campaign that housed 850 chronically homeless people through 2014, with an 83 percent success rate of them remaining off the streets. It’s done by getting people into a stable environment and then surrounding them with services that help them stabilize their lives, kick their addictions and find jobs. The idea is fundamental to the push by local lawmakers looking to create space for the homeless to live in the affordable-housing wasteland of the Bay Area.

It worked for King, who now spends time creekside and below highway overpasses talking to San Jose’s homeless to find out what they need and deliver that message to officials who can help. He attends nearly all government meetings dealing with homelessness and last week appeared before the county board of supervisors. King said that in Santa Clara County, there’s a “schism” between what case management is supposed to do and what it actually does.

“People won’t hear from their case worker for a month and a half,” he said, “and when they do hear from them, they’re told ‘I no longer work there, you’re getting transferred to another agency and you need to contact my boss to find out how that’s going to happen but it won’t happen until the end of the month.’ And that leads to a lot of questions and a lot of frustration among people who are trying to avail themselves.”

Haggerty agrees case management is key.

“The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness find their own way out of it after a short-term crisis,” she said. “But there is a group that will remain trapped there forever if not for active intervention, and it’s that group that must be known by name, to match them to the right resources.”

Haggerty pointed out Fremont-based Abode Services, which made news nearly a year ago when it partnered with Santa Clara County to create a novel “Pay for Success” program in which investors front the cost for Abode to help the chronically homeless Haggerty is talking about.

Abode director Louis Chicoine said that so far they’ve housed over 90 people, the vast majority of whom remained with the program.

“I think we’re on the front end of really beginning to make a noticeable change in the way we help homeless people,” he said.

According to a joint study by nonprofit Destination: Home and Santa Clara County, 61 percent of the $520 million spent annually in Santa Clara County on the homeless is used by just 10 percent of that population. And that $67,000 per-person cost could be cut on average by nearly $43,000 by getting them housed.

“We encourage people to want to end homelessness because these are our brothers and sisters living in a way nobody should have to live,” Berg said. “But if they can’t relate to that, we tell them they should just do it because it’s cheaper to house them than it is to leave them on the streets.”

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.

The homeless in Santa Clara County

According to the latest survey conducted every two years and released a year ago, there were 6,556 who have no permanent housing in Santa Clara County.
That figure is 14 percent lower than the 7,631 in 2013, and the lowest level in a decade. There was a 12 percent decrease among the chronically homeless. Of those counted, 71 percent were considered “unsheltered,” living on the street, in encampments or in vehicles.
In San Jose, the number dropped from 4,770 in 2013 to 4,063 in 2015, a 15 percent decrease.