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San Jose: 42 percent spike in homeless population

A woman walks toward friends at a homeless encampment where she lives next to the Interstates 101 and 280 in San Jose, California, on Saturday, February 3, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group Archives)

San Jose, like surrounding cities, has seen a steep increase in the number of people sleeping on the street

Aligning with what many residents have suspected, new figures released Thursday show that the number of homeless people in the nation’s 10th largest city has spiked dramatically — 42 percent in two years.

According to the 2019 point-in-time count, a federally mandated count of the area’s homeless population, San Jose has seen the number of homeless residents jump from 4,350 in 2017 to 6,172 in 2019. Santa Clara County as a whole has seen a 31 percent uptick, from 7,394 to 9,706. Across the state, cities and counties are seeing similar increases.

“It’s a systems failure,” said Jen Loving, the CEO of Destination: Home, an organization that has partnered with the city and county to house homeless people.

From individuals and cities opposing new affordable housing developments to the state’s spending habits, Loving said, communities haven’t made ending homelessness a priority. And with some of the highest housing costs in the nation, that leaves many San Jose residents — particularly people of color, who are disproportionately likely to work low-wage service jobs — at risk of winding up on the streets.

Mayor Sam Liccardo agrees.

“This report calls for us collectively to end the reign of the NIMBY in Silicon Valley,” Liccardo said, referring to community opposition (Not In My BackYard) to housing and services for homeless individuals. “We all have a shared responsibility to address this crisis — every city, every neighborhood — and that means we must house homeless neighbors here and not the proverbial somewhere else.”

San Jose’s first permanently supportive housing development recently opened at 2nd and Keyes streets, bringing more than 100 people off the streets. And later this year, projects using funding from the 2016 affordable housing bond measure — Measure A — will house hundreds more residents. Dozens of other Measure A-funded projects are in the works, said Jacqueline MacLean, with the county’s Office of Supportive Housing.

In the last three and a half years, more than 1,300 formerly homeless veterans have moved into San Jose housing. More than 500 families on the verge of homelessness have received emergency grants, and San Jose voted to put 45 percent of its housing funds toward serving extremely low-income residents. All told, nearly 7,000 people living in Santa Clara County have moved into permanent housing since 2015. And, city and county officials, they have helped thousands more avoid homelessness through grants and other programs.

But it’s not enough.

For every person who leaves homelessness in the area, another two to three enter.

According to the latest count, the number of people considered chronically homeless in San Jose has risen 31 percent since 2017, from 1,205 to 1,579.The overall county figure has gone up 18 percent. And while three-quarters of homeless people were unsheltered in 2017 at both the city and county levels, the 2019 count shows an unsheltered rate of 83 percent in San Jose and 82 percent in the county.

“It’s disappointing and unacceptable, but I don’t think it’s shocking,” said Ragan Henninger, the deputy director of San Jose’s Housing Department.

“We know what the answer is. It’s more housing.”

“We’re not scaling resources,” Henninger added. “We have to keep scaling.”

City officials and advocates agree that doesn’t necessarily mean building massive housing projects. The vast majority of formerly homeless people who move into permanent supportive housing stay housed. Such housing typically comes with career counseling and other assistance, meaning it takes staff resources and individual attention.

Warehousing people, Loving said, “isn’t solving the problem. That’s getting it out of your face.”

Currently, it costs around $650,000 to build an apartment in Santa Clara County. But simply funneling more resources toward housing development isn’t going to fix the problem, Liccardo said.

“We must bend the cost curve and we can do that with innovation,” the mayor said.

This week, Liccardo and several of his City Council colleagues proposed giving residents forgivable loans to build accessory dwelling units — or granny flats — in their yards. And he wants the city and county to “double down” on “upstream interventions” to support families at risk of homelessness.

“We don’t need the point in time count to tell us that we have a homelessness crisis,” Liccardo said, “on the streets of our city and every big city on the west coast.”