Looking to help house hundreds of north county's homeless residents during the winter months, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed last week to set aside $3 million to renovate an existing warehouse in Sunnyvale to serve as a permanent cold-weather shelter. The shelter would provide beds, free meals and access to showers for up to 100 people each night.
Finding a new home for a permanent homeless shelter north of San Jose has been an ongoing struggle. For years, county officials have searched for a suitable replacement for the Sunnyvale Armory, which served as the North County's cold-weather shelter before it closed permanently in March 2014. The booming real estate market and protests from Sunnyvale residents opposed to opening a homeless shelter in residential areas have combined to prolong the process of finding a site for the shelter.
A letter from county staff earlier this year noted that no city managers or chamber of commerce leaders in the north county responded to inquiries regarding properties or buildings that could be used for a homeless shelter.
With few options left on the table, county staff are now suggesting that a county-owned warehouse in the northern end of Sunnyvale may be the best option. Under the new plan, roughly 6,500 square feet of the warehouse at 999 Hamlin Court would be partitioned and converted into a homeless shelter big enough for 100 beds. The renovation, which is expected to cost about $2.5 million, also calls for additional space to be used for meal preparation, restrooms and showers.
The permanent facility would add some much-needed stability to county efforts to house homeless people during the cold winter months. Last year, the county had only a few months to plan for and construct a temporary homeless shelter on the site of the former Onizuka Air Force Station after community backlash had dashed plans to build a shelter in a residential community of Sunnyvale. Sunnyvale City Council members blocked plans to use the same site for a homeless shelter this year, citing a need to avoid locking up the city-owned land for county uses through 2016.
Inadequate shelter space has been an ongoing problem in Santa Clara County. The county ranks second worst in the United States for proportion of homeless residents who go "unsheltered" at night, meaning they do not have access to transitional housing or emergency shelters and are forced to live in cars, on the street or in encampments. A 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that just over 80 percent of the region's homeless people go unsheltered, just behind the Fresno and Madera area, which is at 83 percent.
In the North County area, where there are no emergency shelters, that ratio goes from bad to worse. The latest homeless count shows that Mountain View has 276 homeless people living in the city, of whom 271 are unsheltered. That can spell trouble during the winter, when wet and cold conditions become a major health hazard. A recent county report revealed that 40 homeless people died during the last winter season, compared with 25 deaths the prior year.
Andrea Urton, CEO of the shelter network HomeFirst, called the temporary homeless shelter on Moffett Field at Onizuka a big success last winter. Despite being available by referrals only, the shelter averaged 95 percent capacity over 116 days, serving 27 children under the age of 18 and more than a dozen families. Of the individuals referred to the shelter, 33 came from the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos.
Urton said they started a little late into the winter season and it took a few weeks to get enough referrals to fill the beds, but it paid off when homeless people had a reliable place to sleep each night.
"Once they got the word out, we nailed it," she said. "The referral process was very helpful."
HomeFirst has been chosen to run the new shelter facility at Hamlin Court once it is constructed, and will have a lot more time for community meetings to address any concerns prior to opening in late November, Urton said. The extra engagement will help to foster a better relationship with neighboring residents and businesses, and ease concerns about the influx of homeless people into the area, she said.
"Over the last year and a half we have really begun to understand how to partner and work with the community to involve their voice earlier on," she said.
Residents in the area voiced concerns about the new shelter plans at a June 13 community meeting, saying that security personnel need to be on-site to monitor local businesses that may be affected by the shelter clients.
Scott Landsittel, speaking on behalf of the neighboring company LBA Realty, told county supervisors in a letter that there doesn't appear to be a real plan for security and enforcement to manage upwards of 100 people entering and leaving the shelter. He said car thefts are already a major problem for the company's campus, and that "vandals" have attempted to throw rocks through the ground-floor windows to steal computer equipment -- all of which could increase in frequency without proactive security, he said.
A county report tabulating all the emergency and police calls to the temporary shelter last winter shows that 16 patrol calls were made to the site. Police escorted a total of 10 people off the site, handled one issue involving violence, and arrested one person.