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HELPING HANDS: Volunteers provide lunch for the homeless and otherwise needy at Martha's Soup Kitchen in San Jose. Last year there were more than 7,000 people living on the streets in Santa Clara County.

Everybody Off The Streets

County officials admit they're losing the battle against homelessness. But with a revolutionary approach, they say they can end it locally in seven years.

By Erin Sherbert

CAN SANTA CLARA county end homelessness by 2015? It sounds as far-fetched as suggesting we can put a stop to all violent crime or pollution.

But county officials have launched a cutting-edge campaign that pledges to get people off the streets of Santa Clara County within the next eight years.

It's only recently that policymakers across the nation are latching onto this movement to end homelessness. In Santa Clara County, policymakers are steadfast with their plans to overhaul the current system, which many say has perpetuated chronic homelessness rather than end it.

And Santa Clara County has the numbers to prove it.

Despite the expansive services and emergency shelters that cater to the unhoused, county officials last year counted more than 7,000 people living on the streets, many whom were families with children.

"There are lots of services out there in the county and the city. ... The problem is, across the country, it's not resulting in ending homelessness, it's managing homelessness," said Margie Matthews, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Affordable Housing. "The only way you can end it is to provide permanent, supportive housing."

That's just what Santa Clara County plans to do. The centerpiece of its campaign is to reserve at least 500 housing units every year exclusively for the homeless. It's certainly a bold goal, especially in a region that suffers from a serious shortage of affordable housing.

However, studies are pointing to this: if communities open up permanent housing with services for the homeless, that population is more likely to stay housed rather than end up back on the streets.

"What we have not done a good job of is connecting the services and the housing," said Chris Block, director of Charities Housing.

Night Vision

Every winter, the emergency shelters in Santa Clara County open their doors, giving homeless folks a place to sleep for the night.

But that's basically it.

The county hasn't done much more to provide long-term housing for the homeless. Although the county has built more than 14,000 affordable units in the last decade, very few of those were affordable enough for people who have been living on the streets and out of their cars.

Instead of preserving this cycle, Supervisor Don Gage grew insistent that the region put an end to homelessness within 10 years. He got together with elected officials and drew up a plan that sat on the shelf for three years. That was until last year, when the county surveyed its homeless population only to learn that they were way off the mark when they thought there were only a few thousand people without a place to live. Of the 7,400 homeless people counted, 35 percent were classified as chronically homeless, meaning they were disabled and homeless for more than a year, or they have had at least four episodes of homelessness during a three-year period.

Seeing those results, Gage pulled his report from the shelf and resurrected his energy to end homelessness. He melded his ideas with San Jose, which was also working to put together a similar plan. From there, they called on housing advocates, community members and other elected officials which then became known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ending on Homelessness and Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis.

The group met many times over the year, crafting a progressive plan that paves the way for permanent housing, consolidated services and employment programs

. "I think we can solve the problem," Gage said without hesitation.

Rich and Rewarding

Gage is quick to admit this call to end homelessness is more than a humanitarian effort.

It's also about saving some money.

The way he's calculated it, the county spends an estimated $60,000 a year on the average homeless person with a mental illness. That money goes toward services, shelters and emergency rooms visits, where they often go just to get out of the cold.

Providing permanent housing changes that number to $16,000 annually, Gage said.

Already, county administrators are reviewing potential sites where Santa Clara County can open a "one-stop" center, combining the fragmented service network under one roof. It would be a place where a homeless person can go to get health care, counseling, financial services, housing assistance and a haircut. They are also proposing a 17-bed medical respite center to give homeless people a much-needed place to recover from illnesses or medical conditions, so they aren't cycling back through emergency rooms.

The price tag of this effort comes to $25 million over the next five years. That's where the campaigning begins.

Elected leaders haven't said anything about tapping into taxpayers. Instead, they're talking about reshuffling existing resources and money as well as making nice with the private sector for possible chances to raise some money.

They also are taking their plan to each city in the county and selling it hard. Homelessness has no boundaries in Santa Clara County so every community is expected to chip in, Gage said.

Santa Clara County Housing Authority has committed to opening up 100 housing units for homeless people every year. In San Jose, where 60 percent of the homeless population is located, city leaders are now debating a controversial policy that would significantly boost the affordable housing stock across San Jose. The policy under consideration would mandate residential developers to build more affordable units. The goal is to get more extremely low income and homeless people into housing.

"Permanent housing has been our goal," said Jeff Janssen, senior policy adviser for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. "Shelters, it's proven over the course of time, don't really work."

Housing First

This housing-comes-first approach to ending homelessness is not necessarily novel. Although Santa Clara County is taking the lead in the Bay Area, with other counties already asking to review the plans in development here, the county has signed onto a nationwide movement that's taken on a new approach to homelessness: housing comes first, services second.

Traditionally, the homeless cycle has gone something like this: People living on the streets get sick, go to an emergency room, are released before they are fully recovered and turn to an emergency shelter, where there's a limit on the time they can stay. But that model hasn't really worked in keeping people off the streets. In fact, in many cases it has enabled chronic homelessness, where people find themselves back on the streets repeatedly.

It's unrealistic to expect anyone to get their life together and secure a job when they don't have a stable, permanent place to sleep at night, said Nan Roman president for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

By the 1990s, Los Angeles caught onto this and decided to try something new: they opened permanent housing for homeless families to help pull them from the cycle. It worked.

Since then, other communities have slowly implemented similar plans to combat the homelessness in their regions. They've cut out the chronic homeless problem while saving millions of dollars, Roman said.

The housing-first approach is also taking shape at the policy level. At the federal level, policies supporting the homeless have been rather schizophrenic. But the Bush administration sent a sure signal when it implemented its own 10-year plan to end homelessness this year, earmarking $25 million for solutions to house the homeless. For the last three years, Congress has allocated 30 percent of its funds for homeless programs for permanent housing. It's these programs that will help house the chronically homeless across the nation, which accounts for 20 percent of the homeless population, Roman said.

"If you have someplace stable and solid to live it makes everything in life a lot easier," Roman said. "If you have your kitchen repainted it throws everything off, much less not knowing where you are sleeping tonight."

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