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OpEd: How a piece of paper can help end homelessness

The following OpEd was co-authored by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH and a Destination: Home Board Member, and originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.

Several years ago, long before a deadly pandemic swept across Silicon Valley and the rest of the world, Frank lost his job, then his home, and sadly, ended up being homeless.

He didn’t look like the stereotypical image of a homeless man. In fact, he looked more like a middle-aged uncle who fell on hard times.

What saved Frank, perhaps even his very life, was a piece of paper with words and numbers on it. No, not a fistful of dollars. Not a check. And definitely not a lottery ticket.

That paper was written five years ago by a group of strategic thinkers from Santa Clara County, San Jose and local stakeholders. Their task was to write a five-year plan to end homelessness for the county.

Although homelessness increased by over 3,000 more people in the past five years, the plan written on that paper set the pace for building the largest number of supportive housing apartments in the county’s history, and moving the largest number of people from the streets into housing — more than 14,000 people moved into homes.

Frank was one of those 14,000 people who moved into his own apartment during that period.

Now, a new plan has been written to guide the county’s homelessness and housing efforts for the next five years. It is called the 2020-2025 Community Plan to End Homelessness. (I was honored to be on the steering committee in helping develop this plan.)

Similar to the previous initiative, this is not just another piece of paper that will sit on a bureaucrat’s desk collecting dust.

The past five years show Santa Clara County’s track record on successfully addressing homelessness is good. With the result of 14,000 people getting off the streets, I would actually say that plan was great.

The agency I lead works in nearly 40% of the state’s “continuum of cares” — a term created by the federal government that describes a region (usually a county or group of cities) that receives federal funding to address homelessness in their “continuum”.

Santa Clara County is one of the most advanced continuums in the state. It is data-driven, ambitious, collaborative, and focused on getting people off the streets and into a home.

Just look at the new plan.

The data in 2019 shows when one person in Santa Clara County moves from the street into a home, 2-3 new people walk out of their homes and end up becoming homeless. One step forward and 2-3 steps back. Appropriately, and really strategically, the new plan starts off with addressing the root causes of homelessness, and how to prevent people from becoming homeless.

The new plan is also still focused on housing. We don’t successfully move 14,000 people into homes unless many of these people move into newly-built homes. We all know that this region, as well as most of California, possesses a dearth of homes, let alone affordable ones.

But given the recent protests against racial inequity, housing alone is not enough if we are selectively placing — whether intentionally or not — the wrong people into these new homes. This new initiative is bold enough to recognize that addressing racial inequity is part of the solution to ending homelessness.

Finally, this plan acknowledges people are suffering on our streets today and need solutions now — not in a few years after an apartment building is finished. More new shelter beds are part of addressing the county’s homelessness.

The quality of life for a person on the streets increases when we take them off the street — even temporarily by providing a shelter bed. They have access to healthy food, are safe from extreme weather and have better access to health care.

And, we all know that the quality of a community is better when street homelessness is no longer an issue.

The goal for the next five years is ambitious. Help 20,000 people transition off the streets and into their new homes.

With this plan, I don’t see meaningless numbers on a piece of paper. I see 20,000 Franks packing up their limited possessions and moving into a small, but clean and safe, apartment — in Frank’s case, an apartment in downtown San Jose.

With this initiative, I don’t see a cluster of words on paper. I see foundations being poured, walls being built and new beds being installed, supported by our surrounding cities and the county.

I see a plan that works.