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.
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.