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County's effort to provide shelter beds runs into difficulty

Office of Supportive Housing aims to remove RVs from the streets

Santa Clara County is searching for new ways to open up more temporary shelters, safe parking programs and other short-term means of housing some of the thousands of county homeless residents, citing a slow start to the effort and setbacks in both San Jose and Mountain View over the last 10 months.

At the Dec. 5 Board of Supervisors meeting, the county's Office of Supportive Housing laid out its multifaceted approach intended to add 500 new emergency shelter beds and housing opportunities for the homeless over the next 36 months, including small grants and "specialized" programs aimed at helping people living out of cars and RVs on the streets of Mountain View and Palo Alto.

Reports released earlier this year found that there are 7,400 homeless people in Santa Clara County on any given night, many of whom are considered "unsheltered" because of a lack of emergency beds throughout the county. Although the passage of a $950 million housing bond last year will bring thousands of permanent supportive housing units to the county, the county has made it a priority to bring immediate emergency housing through temporary shelters, RV parks and even "tiny home" villages, said Ky Le, the director of the Office for Supportive Housing.

"At our maximum we can only accommodate about 2,600 of those (homeless)," Le said at the Dec. 5 meeting. "We have outlined other methods, other approaches that I think can add to and contribute to the needs of homeless persons on a daily basis."

Among the new ideas, the Office of Supportive Housing is looking into $20,000 grants for organizations such as church groups to establish small-scale shelter and safe parking programs suitable for at least five people each night. The county is also exploring the idea of funding "specialized" RV programs that could pay for spaces in existing RV parks, temporary motel stays and even buying RVs from homeless residents and disposing of them -- all with a goal of getting RVs off of city streets.

Homeless residents living in RVs has been a growing problem in Mountain View and Palo Alto, representing a nuisance to neighborhoods and businesses and a public safety problem because of leaking vehicle fluids and biological waste disposal, according to a county staff report. Complicating the problem is that homeless residents living in RVs are often reluctant to part ways with their vehicles even when presented with a housing opportunity, out of fear that they won't have a place to sleep in future emergencies.

County officials plan to work with RV park owners who would be willing to expand to make room for vehicle dwellers, though they wouldn't gain any special exemptions from existing legal restrictions.

The city of Mountain View has grappled with the growing number of people living out of cars and RVs throughout the city, particularly along Latham Street, Crisanto Avenue and more recently Shoreline Boulevard. A survey in June 2016 found 128 inhabited vehicles throughout the city, and a little under half of the vehicle dwellers interviewed said they used to live in permanent housing in Mountain View before being pushed out onto the streets -- frequently because of the high cost of living.

The problem extends to the rest of the county, affecting both homeless individuals and families. Evergreen School District board member Sylvia Alvarez told the board of supervisors that there are at least 22 families living in cars with children in the district who arrive at school every day "tired, cold and depressed." She urged supervisors to move quickly on finding some way to support the residents ahead of the longer-term housing that the housing bond, Measure A, promises to bring to the county.

"Homeless families cannot continue to live in their cars waiting for Measure A housing to be built," she said.

The county staff report conceded that it's been "extremely difficult" to establish emergency shelter, transitional or temporary housing for the homeless. Very few organizations have been willing to develop and operate the programs, in part because there is there virtually no state or federal money available to sweeten the deal.

"The City of San Jose conducted two solicitations for operators of Safe Parking programs, but was unable to implement a program," according to the staff report. "Even with the backing of the city of Mountain View and the County, no organizations have come forward to implement even a small-scale safe parking program in the city of Mountain View."

The good news is that the county may be well on its way to meeting the 500-bed goal, through a planned expansion of the Sunnyvale Cold Weather Shelter to up to 140 beds over the next year, as well as the opening of a new homeless shelter in downtown Mountain View this winter. The shelter at Trinity United Methodist Church -- at the corner of Hope and Mercy streets -- was slated to open the last week in November, but was delayed because the facility needed fire alarms installed. The tentative opening date is now this Wednesday.

Related content:

Webcast: Cracking down on RVs

RV dwellers: Add affordable housing, not regultions

Enforcement to remove El Camino RVs largely ineffective

Palo Alto City tows unmoved RVs, trailer on El Camino Real

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