Santa Clara County to bolster homeless housing in time for winter storms | News | Palo Alto Online |


Santa Clara County to bolster homeless housing in time for winter storms

$13M in one-time funds to provide emergency shelter space during the cold months

Santa Clara County officials plan to massively increase the number of emergency shelter space for homeless people throughout the county, and they're doing it with a sense of urgency.

The looming spectre of El Niño, a weather pattern that is expected to bring heavy rainfall to the Bay Area this winter, has members of the county's Office of Housing and Homeless Support Services working quickly to find and build homeless shelters, including in the underserved areas in North County.

The plans, which were presented to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 15, will cost the county roughly $13 million in one-time costs and another $13 million in ongoing costs. If approved, it would raise the number of year-round shelter beds in the county from a meager 130 to 715.

At the meeting, Gary Graves, the county's chief operating officer, called most of the plans "short-term solutions" and said the money would help to create an acquisition fund, enabling the county to buy any potential shelter space that pops up. The county, in the past, has been slow to compete for available space in the red hot Bay Area real estate market.

"(The fund) would allow us to take advantage of opportunities that come about to increase the number of units that are available," Graves said.

The big investment in emergency shelter marks a divergence from the county's normal focus on long-term solutions for its homeless population, and will instead go toward immediate help for the roughly 4,627 homeless people in the county who are "unsheltered" and living on the street, in encampments or in their cars.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who helped develop the plans with the county's Housing Task Force over six meetings, noted a sense of urgency in getting the emergency housing ready as fast as possible.

In a press release prior to the meeting, Chavez said the county is in a "race" against El Niño.

"We need to take immediate action to reduce human misery from the heavy rains that we expect," she said.

A significant part of the plans include finding a replacement for the Sunnyvale Armory, a facility that used to provide 125 emergency shelter beds for homeless North County residents during the cold winter months. Last year, the facility closed its doors, leaving minimal shelter options in the county north of San Jose.

After months of fruitless searching, the county has found a promising opportunity to open up a temporary shelter on Moffett Field for one year. In a still-pending agreement with the city of Sunnyvale, the county has plans to build a facility on the northernmost end of the former Onizuka Air Force Station. The goal is to get that shelter open by Nov. 30, according to Ky Le, director of the county's Office of Supportive Housing.

The previous location being considered in Sunnyvale fell through. County staff considered using a small, county-owned wedge of land next to North Fair Oaks Avenue and Central Expressway for a shelter facility, but residents in the nearby single-family homes sharply criticized the plans.

Le described the shelter on Moffett Field as a short-term facility only expected to be around for a year, to avoid locking the city of Sunnyvale into any long-term agreements. After that, he said, it's up to the county to look at other locations on the former Air Force station or try again to use the county-owned plot along Central Expressway.

Until the North County shelters are established, homeless people in need of a drop-in shelter will continue to be referred to facilities in San Jose by organizations like the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos. Le said the new facility at Moffett is a first step toward filling that gap in homeless services in the northernmost communities in the county.

"The county board's intent is to have one or more facilities in the North County area, and I think we really want more than one in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale," Le said.

Shelter space is needed now more than ever in Mountain View, where the homeless population has recently doubled. A head count of the homeless population earlier this year found 276 homeless people reside in Mountain View, up from 139 in 2013. All but five of those people were considered unsheltered.

Leveraging resources

The Housing Task Force recommendations included some pretty unconventional ways of getting homeless people off the street, including millions of dollars to house people in city-sanctioned encampments, so called "safe parking" sites and faith-based facilities.

Le said the safe parking program, which has been successfully adopted in Santa Barbara County, would give a safe haven to people who live and sleep in their vehicles. He said there are roughly 1,000 people sleeping in their cars on any given night, and the program aims to provide a place for them to park and get basic services such as restrooms and showers. He said there will be security available to monitor the area.

Once a city in the county identifies a parking lot that could be used for the program, the county would provide funding to use it as a homeless parking lot. Le said it should have a minimal effect on nearby businesses and residents.

"The idea is to provide a space for them to park their vehicles so they can rest and feel more secure," Le said.

Between the high number of unsheltered homeless people in the county and the prohibitively high cost of building shelters for all of the people out on the street, Le said the county is also looking at ways to set up temporary camps on government or even private property where people can stay.

The sanctioned encampments, referred to by Le and other county staff as "unconventional" structures and facilities, could be set up by homeless housing organizations using grant money from the county.

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10 people like this
Posted by Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Mike-Crescent Park is a registered user.

"Unconventional" says it all. We are a city with massive parking issues. And Santa Clara County wants cities like ours to designate 'safe parking areas' for homeless who live in their vehicles? This is madness.

Like this comment
Posted by @Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Well, the county could always designate your back yard instead.

Your call.

Like this comment
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Oregon Ave at rush times would be ideal.

4 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 24, 2015 at 10:52 am

Every year we see the same story - desperation and fruitless search - despite the fact that everyone knows this is going to happen.

My theory is that "the people in charge" already have a plan and want the "last ditch" effort to prevail. They keep using the desperation factor when they had a whole year to prepare.

The Homeless already have a designated place at Moffett Field / Sunnyvale owned property. A lot of cars and vans were parked at the old Safeway in MV on California.

I keep suggesting that the fair grounds is a huge area that has massive parking, buildings with heat, bathrooms, and food preparation areas. An area at the fair grounds can be sectioned off for the cars and motor homes that need a place to park. So what is the reason that the fair grounds cannot be used for this purpose? Because the county owns it and has the liability for the people once they are on the property?

There is a whole background set of costs that comes with the solutions. They want someone else to absorb those costs within their already limited budgets - like a church or community center.

The problem with people in their cars on your street is that they eventually have to go to the bathroom - and that creates a problem for you if it is your property they chose for that function. And we have a high number now of home break-ins and burglaries - people are typically very vigilant of who is on their street to protect their own property. The police department has classes on local neighborhood vigilance.

5 people like this
Posted by Nancy Lowe
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:07 am

There are so many cute tiny prototypes cottages for the homeless that appear on Facebook or which can be accessed by Googling....What better present could we possibly give ourselves than to house them? It is a necessity!!

3 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:19 am

>>> "safe parking program [to] give a safe haven to people who live and sleep in their vehicles"
This is a much better idea than abandoning vehicle dwellers next to the little kids' play area at Boulware Park as Palo Alto has currently done. To make it work (at Moffett or elsewhere), it needs to be coupled with a prohibition to vehicle dwell elsewhere. The City repealed the vehicle dweller ban with promises (backed with funds!) to help vehicle dwellers, but those promises have been unfulfilled to date. Maybe Palo Alto can help the County as a whole get it right this time. Paraphrasing Joe Simitian from Monday's Council meeting: what's needed is a an appropriate structure around this idea and an appropriate site. We can do this.

1 person likes this
Posted by Chuck Jagoda
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:41 am

If the County had not voted to destroy the Armory in Sunnyvale, it would have saved 750,000 last winter and according to this article over $20 million in the two succeeding years. It would be a really good-- and HUGE savings to stop and take a look at these recent decisions,get explanations from the decision makers, GET ACTUAL HOMELESS PEOPLE involved in decision-oversight. Can you say grand jury investigation? There are many things that need to be changed. One if the most important is Homeless Input and its absence. Nothing About Us Without Us.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:32 pm

The last thing we need is homeless people camped out at school parking lots or community center parking lots in the proximity of children. That is a no go. Also - neighborhoods.

People are talking churches. Churches work on very limited budgets. Their facilities are for the use of their programs attended by their members. Don't make decisions as to how other people want to use their property. If you are in a compassionate mood than take that person into your own home.

We have a function sponsored by the police department - all police departments - called Neighborhood Watch, and Community Crime Watch. If your neighborhood has not had this presentation then they should request the police come out and put on a neighborhood presentation so everyone is working from the same set of basic requirements for community safety.

TS is filled with stories of break-ins, car window breakage, people being hit. We do not need that in our city or neighborhoods.

I just went out to mail a letter - guy parks car - by the time I am coming back he is smoking pot and you can smell it. Told him to move and go down to the park. I do not assume he is homeless - I assume he works in the area and is on his break. He can take his break in the park that has bathrooms and trash cans. Different generations function in different manners- the younger set can go to the park.

3 people like this
Posted by Tongue in Cheek (?)
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:52 pm

This is awful. They want to tax us and spend it on people we threw away! [Portion removed]

10 people like this
Posted by Tell It Like It Is
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 24, 2015 at 3:44 pm

I thought the county and city had an extra $29 Million in the low income housing funds to buy the Buena Vista Trailer Park. Can't that money be used to house the homeless (the lowest of our low income residents) during this urgent time of need ?

5 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 24, 2015 at 4:57 pm

I think there is a lot of unused space in the baylands. Maybe they need to carve out an area there in the area near San Antonio (cement) where they can park.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 24, 2015 at 7:31 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:56 pm

Why hasn't Joe Simitian be in the forefront of this issue?

2 people like this
Posted by Gone On Too Long
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 25, 2015 at 4:10 pm

Wow, I'm surprised by the silence on this thread.

Many of us have been talking about the homeless problem in Santa Clara and the highest priority need to create housing for these individuals, groups, and families. Santa Clara has the nations larges homeless encampment, yet claims to lack the funding to make even a small impact. They seek $15+$15M this winter, and claim to not have it ?. "Tell It" above reminds us that there is $30M sitting idle given that the owner of Buena Vista has rejected the recent purchase offer. Why aren't those funds being used right now do address this problem ?

Where is the leadership that fought so hard to take $29M from Palo Alto and Santa Clara's low income housing fund for BV ? Why isn't Joe Simitian out front with a plan to help the homeless this winter ? Where is the FOBV ? why aren't the same lawyers suing the City on behalf of the BV residents offering to sue the County for failing to give the homeless due process ?

It seems the contingent touting compassion as the primary virtue that justifies saving Buena Vista, does not extend that same compassion when it comes to helping the homeless.

For folks interested in helping, here are just some of the organizations in Santa Clara County you can contact to offer support:
Bill Wilson Center
Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County
Center for Employment Training
Community Solutions
EHC Lifebuilders
Family Supportive Housing
Hope for Outdoor People
InnVision the Way Home
St. Joseph’s Family Center
Sunnyvale Community Services
Valley Health Center Gilroy
Valley Homeless Health Care
West Valley Community Services

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Santa Clara County is quite sizable - and wealthy - and Palo Alto is on the northernmost edge. Why do commenters assume that the solutions lay in your town?

As for putting them out on the baylands - during an El Nino winter? Really?

1 person likes this
Posted by Gone On Too Long
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 25, 2015 at 5:15 pm


The SCC Census estimates are between 7500 and 6500 homeless.
Other Census data can be got here : Web Link

Given that Palo Alto represents 4% of the Counties population, and 2% of the land area, your logic above seems to argue that Palo Alto should only be responsible for between 2% and 4% of the homeless problem. That is between 140 and 280 homeless people allocated to Palo Alto.

Those are pretty harsh limits, IMHO. I'd note that the homeless includes families with children, and we're talking about winter and a possible El Nino.

Perhaps we should base the Palo ALto allocation on the cities per capita income relative to that of SCC. That would allocate more homeless to Palo Alto's and other rich cities (Atherton, Los Altos Hills, etc.) responsibility.

What are you suggesting is the right number of homeless that Palo Alto should help?

Math ref:
Santa Clara: 1.9M people, 1290 sq Miles
Palo Alto: 67k People, 23 square miles

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

I'm not advocating for per capita help, which I suspect you realize. What I wrote was, "Santa Clara County is quite sizable - and wealthy - and Palo Alto is on the northernmost edge. Why do commenters assume that the solutions lay in your town?"

It's a regional issue, and for the purposes of this article, a county one, so the county is looking for winter solutions, as it should.

4 people like this
Posted by Gone On Too Long
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 25, 2015 at 6:10 pm


Sorry. I just can's see that saying "It's a regional issue, and for the purposes of this article, a county one" means that Palo Alto is not immediately on the line to help address the obstacles and solutions that the article puts on the table and vis-a-vis the cities the article specifically mentions and implies as locations for this needed housing.

The County and it's task force are asking Palo Alto (along with the other cities that make up Santa Clara County) to provide locations and housing. The County for its part, is coordinating and offering to provide the cities with offsetting funds (albeit from taxing the Counties residents - so back to Palo ALto and its residents again).

The bottom line of this article is,
1. The county (that is the cities that make up the county) needs to come up with $30M (the estimate so far)
2. The County (that is the cities that make up the county) doesn't have the housing and Emergency housing needed, in so far as the Cities have not stepped up volunteered adequate space.

I further observe that the champions of low income housing who were so prominent during the effort to save Buena Vista, are notably absent from this article and this discussion thread.

I am puzzled that after standing up as a City and saying that we care about our low income citizens, maintaining a diverse population, and were willing to fight to save Buena Vista for these reasons (an effort for which the county contributed half of the funds), why is our City not voicing the same compassionate support for helping our homeless citizens survive this winter?

2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2015 at 6:59 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Oh. by all means - step up and see who helps. So many in your city think your city does enough. Certainly a well-coordinated county effort can do more than one city whose Palo Alto Process is infamous. Maybe asking your community why they don't want to do more for the homeless is in order at this point. Maybe more can be done if those in power can actually dodge your city's authorities to avoid being slowed by its processes.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 25, 2015 at 11:27 pm

There was a recent article in the SJM concerning the Santa Clara County Commitment to helping the homeless. San Jose city is heading up a lot of the effort. What concerns me is that we always see articles concerning Santa Clara County but I never see any about San Mateo County. What other counties are working this issue?

The funds are allocated by the county for the county so please report on what the other surrounding counties are doing to support this effort.

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