Vivian Wan on bodacious goals and homelessness system upgrades

Vivian Wan center first row at the launch of Project Welcome Home Californias first Pay for Success project serving Santa Clara County residents experiencing chronic homelessness

Abode Services Chief Operating Officer Vivian Wan discusses her career path and collaboration with Destination: Home to end homelessness in Santa Clara County. Applying the Housing First approach, Abode Services develops supportive housing and delivers the essential supportive services that go along with it.

What is most promising about how our community is addressing homelessness?

The most promising part of our efforts to end homelessness, particularly here in Santa Clara County, is that we have built a culture of trust and respect among service providers, government partners and intermediaries like Destination: Home. In Santa Clara County, the culture has changed. We are all unified and working toward the same goal, bringing different pieces to make that goal a reality. Each partner’s contribution is respected. There is an acknowledgement and a recognition that we all need to move toward supportive housing.

How has the work of Abode Services changed in recent years?

Our mission is to end homelessness. That is bodacious and crazy, but we think it is possible. Our work has grown tremendously in Santa Clara County. Just as the coordinated entry system was being established in the county, I remember an early meeting with Destination: Home about the Housing 1000 campaign they were leading. That’s when Abode began to work in Santa Clara County.

When we started, we were not working with any landlords, and we did not have a unified data system allowing collection of information about where people are housed and the outcomes of our work. Now, in Santa Clara County alone, we work with over 400 landlords. We have implemented a database platform allowing us to track all of our activities and progress. We have launched new programs targeting high-need folks. With the help of multiple partners, we launched our “Pay for Success” initiative and other mental health programs. Abode has really grown. Among five counties, Santa Clara County represents approximately 60 percent of our work.

Accomplishments in Santa Clara County are encouraging, and the county encourages us to do more everywhere. It is encouraging to see that when all the parties come together, we make a big impact. I think that it has fed my soul to be able to do more and keep going despite hiccups. There are plenty of hiccups along the way!

Are there opportunities for Abode Services to grow and change?

The county Measure A Affordable Housing Bond is a huge opportunity on the development side, allowing us to scratch the surface and begin building new permanent supportive housing. Abode and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) are two agencies focusing exclusively on development of permanent supportive housing. Some development agencies build affordable housing and will sometimes build supportive housing when money is available. For us though, it is our mission to build supportive housing and provide the services that people need. That is what we do, and it is the only thing that we do. We build supportive housing for folks who were homeless.  

Santa Clara County acknowledges the strength of partners and I think that we have a lot of capacity to continue to shift and change the system and really impact it in a positive way. As we take on more of a leadership role in the county and have more access to decision makers, we can really make change happen in the community.

Abode Services is involved both in constructing supportive housing and delivering on-site supportive services. Has it been challenging to build up the housing development side of the organization? 

The housing development side is a challenge because we only develop supportive housing. In the housing development world, companies typically have big financial reserves and big teams with attorneys structured to purchase and hold properties quickly. Supportive housing, however, is not a money maker, and Abode has not amassed a big cash reserve to allow us to secure properties. Just accessing and attaining potential sites is huge. Finding and hiring the talent to develop the properties is also a challenge due to stiff competition with other developers.

Another challenging piece is community engagement. Santa Clara County is a wealthy place, so you have folks that are loud, articulate, educated and influential. Sometimes, this makes it difficult to develop where we want. I would love to develop in more affluent areas, because we know that the quality of life there would be good for our future residents. The quality of permanent supportive housing is not only determined by the quality of the building, but also by the neighborhood it is in.

The county emphasizes a goal of dispersion when considering its support or financing of a particular development. These new developments should be in cities and districts throughout the county. Often times, however, we are relegated to neighborhoods where we know there will not be much opposition, or where we happen to have a supportive council member that will persist despite “heat” from constituents.

Building supportive housing is super political. Neighborhoods have a strong voice at the front end of a housing development process. In contrast, if you live in a residential community, you typically have no say who your neighbors are. When someone new moves into your community, you don’t have a community meeting to discuss what sort of disabilities that person has, what their rental history is, or if they have had a background check.

When it comes to supportive housing, however, these are the questions asked by community members that we have to answer. To me, it doesn’t feel human. It feels like people are saying, “I’m better than you so I get to decide if you can live here.” This mentality is very problematic, because Santa Clara County is way behind on building the supportive housing it needs.

Some people are scared of supportive housing. Even if they are not scared, some will oppose “homeless housing” going in next door to them. We need to learn to understand that after people move into a new supportive housing apartment building, they are not homeless any more. In this way, there is no such thing as “homeless housing”. It can be a demoralizing process to go through for us and for the people who we hope will be able to live there. The new Housing Ready Communities initiative is helping to address some of these challenges.

Vivian Wan center and the Abode Services team receiving a donation to support a new emergency shelter in Fremont

What kinds of collaborative work have Abode Services and Destination: Home pursued together?

Destination: Home is a great force. What stands out to me is the launch of the Housing 1000 campaign and the Home Not Found cost study, which provided instrumental support to get the county Measure A Affordable Housing Bond on the ballot and approved by voters. That work helped launch the Project Welcome Home Pay for Success initiative, and all the housing development work going on now.

Most recently, Destination: Home has come to the table to help us purchase a property. This was the first time their new Supportive Housing and Innovation Fund has been used in this way. This investment impacts us directly and enabled us to start pre-development work on a great site that will house a ton of formerly homeless people. This type of collaboration is the first of many. 

This blog post is part of a new Destination: Home Guest Blog Series. The purpose of the series is to raise up the voices of our partners and highlight our collective work to end homelessness in Santa Clara County

The Guest Blog Series was led by Destination: Home summer volunteers Robyn Breynaert and Francesca Chicoine with guidance from Cisco Digital Content Lead Kirsten Chiala

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