The number of homeless persons in Palo Alto -- 276 -- has risen by 26 percent since 2015, the highest count in the past 10 years, according to the 2017 Santa Clara County Homeless Census & Survey, which was released on June 30.
The biennial report found that most homeless persons in the county are unemployed and that nearly half are experiencing their first episode of homelessness.
The census, which was conducted Jan. 24 and 25 from 5:30 a.m. to noon, included persons in shelters and those who slept in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations, airports or campgrounds. It did not include people living in unstable situations such as "couch surfing" or motels or hotels or who live in vehicles parked in private driveways or yards.
Palo Alto's count this year surpassed 2007's, when the city had 237 homeless persons, the highest figure in the past decade. The number of homeless persons rose from 219 to 276 between 2015 and 2017, according to the report. Of those, 256 were unsheltered (up from 203) and 20 were sheltered (up from 16).
In 2009, 2011 and 2013, the city had 178, 151 and 157 homeless persons respectively, according to previous counts.
But the count rose in part because for the first time the Palo Alto Unified School District reported to the county the number of its students who are not housed. Similar homeless-population jumps were seen in Mountain View and Morgan Hill.
External factors similarly contributed to decreases in the homeless counts in cities such as Milpitas, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. For example, in Santa Clara, a transitional housing facility whose tenants were previously counted was converted to another use, said Hilary Barroga, county Continuum of Care Quality Improvement manager.
Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services at the nonprofit LifeMoves, which provides homeless services in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, said the rising homelessness reflects the lack of affordable housing. Throughout the county, housing and rental prices have skyrocketed relative to income. People who make $13 to $14 an hour have been the most affected; they cannot afford housing in this area, he said.
Recent increases in people living in RVs and other vehicles are directly related to the housing crisis, including in Palo Alto, Greenberg said. In general, these populations are under-counted. Survey takers are instructed not to knock on the doors of RVs and cars, and persons living in driveways and yards are not approached or counted, he said.
The county report found that 8 percent of the county's 7,394 homeless persons live in vehicles. But identifying persons living in vehicles is difficult during the morning hours when the census took place. Many vehicle dwellers have moved by the time the sun rises to more remote locations where they can blend in. To address that issue, in the north part of the county, which includes Palo Alto, a dedicated outreach worker sought out vehicles prior to sunrise, the report noted.
Overall, homeless persons are under-counted, the report acknowledged. Many people experiencing homelessness do not want to be located. Factors that contribute to under-counts include people living in vehicles or abandoned buildings; persons residing in isolated rural or inaccessible areas; or people who appear to be housed and who are therefore overlooked.
Families with children also often seek to stay on private property rather than sleeping on the streets, in vehicles or in makeshift shelters. Therefore, the study's data is considered a minimum estimate, the report noted.
Greenberg thinks the number of people who are homeless will continue rising unless every city and town takes on building their share of permanent low-income and transitional housing, he said. The survey found that 89 percent of homeless persons in the county are interested in affordable, permanent housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires all jurisdictions receiving federal funding for services and housing for homeless persons to conduct the survey, which is the only source of nationwide data on sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons.
In Santa Clara County the report is conducted through the Office of Supportive Housing, Continuum of Care, in conjunction with social research firm Applied Survey Research.
In 2016 Santa Clara County voters passed a nearly $1 billion affordable housing bond that allows the county to purchase land and build housing for vulnerable populations such as veterans, seniors, disabled and low- and moderate-income individuals or families, victims of abuse, homeless and persons suffering from mental health or substance abuse.
Greenberg said all cities must take on their share of responsibility to house people.
"Everyone wants a magic bullet" to solve the housing crisis, Greenberg said. But "the magic bullet for us is for everyone to take part: communities, cities, residents and the homeless. They are not going to go to another community. When San Francisco does a sweep of an encampment, they go four blocks away. What we need is a collaboration of the cities."
The survey found that 42 percent of Santa Clara County homeless respondents had lived in a home they or a partner owned or rented prior to becoming homeless; 83 percent were Santa Clara County residents at the time they lost their homes. The majority were also longtime residents: 61.1 percent had lived in the county for 10 or more years.
Report statistics: In a nutshell
Overall, Santa Clara County saw a 13 percent rise in homelessness from 2015 to 2017, according to the survey. Homeless population percentage changes between 2015-2017 by city were
Morgan Hill 379%
Mountain View 51%
Palo Alto 26%
San Jose 7%
Santa Clara 28%
Unincorporated areas -24%
(For Los Altos, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga, the percent change was not calculated because the cities had fewer than 50 homeless individuals.)
7,394 total homeless in Santa Clara County, among which are
• 2,530 unaccompanied children and "transition-age" youth
• 2,097 chronically homeless
• 660 veterans
• 294 families (1,075 persons)
• and others
Age and gender:
• 57% 25 years and older
• 66% men
• 33% women
• 1% transgender
Race or ethnicity: (people could self-identify in multiple categories)
• 47% white
• 42% Latino
• 20% Pacific Islander/native Hawaiian
• 14% black
• 13% multiracial
• 3% Asian
2015: 81% unemployed
2017: 92% unemployed
Monthly income 2017:
• $0-$99: 7% (employed); 37% (unemployed)
• $100-$449: 26% (employed); 39% (unemployed)
• $450-$749: 28% (employed); 9% (unemployed)
• $750-$1,099: 14% (employed); 10% (unemployed)
• $1,100-$1,499: 14% (employed); 4% (unemployed)
• $1,500-$3,000: 12% (employed); 2% (unemployed)
• More than $3,000: 0% (employed); 1% (unemployed)
• 48% substance abuse
• 38% psychiatric conditions
• 31% physical disability
• 27% chronic health problems
• 22% post-traumatic stress disorder
• 21% history of domestic abuse
Where they live:
• 36% in shelter
• 35% in street or park encampments
• 14% in structure not meant for habitation
• 8% in vehicles
• 8% motels/hotels
Frequency of homelessness:
• 41% experiencing their first episode of homelessness
• 64% homeless for one year or more
(Source: Applied Survey Research, Santa Clara County Homeless Census Survey 2017(