In the biggest leap since it opened its doors a decade ago, the LifeMoves Opportunity Services Center in Palo Alto housed 47 people in 2016, roughly four times the number in any other prior year, officials said at a ceremony on Friday commemorating the center's 10th anniversary.
The surge is due to a new Santa Clara County program and collaboration with the Community Working Group and nonprofit organizations New Directions and Abode to move chronically homeless persons quickly into housing and services, said Bruce Ives, chief executive officer of LifeMoves, the nonprofit agency that manages the Opportunity Center.
Philip Dah, Opportunity Center senior director, said that a software tool, the Vulnerability Index -- Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), has helped assess chronic homelessness and medical vulnerability. The result has been an increase from 12 to 15 housed clients a year to 47 in 2016 alone.
Clients -- such as the Rios family and Jose Garcia and his 75-year-old uncle, Jose Hernandez -- are recent beneficiaries of the ramped-up services. They have moved from homelessness into jobs and stable environments in a matter of months.
Casualties of the Bay Area's astronomic housing costs, unemployment and illness, these families are finding relief and new hope, they said.
Bertha Rios recalled her family's journey from Freeport, Texas, near Houston, to Palo Alto, with tears:
"It's been very hard," she said.
Rios' eldest son, Christopher, had wanted his family to move from their Texas residence to be nearby when he began attending Stanford University. The family resisted moving, but after father Martin Rios lost his electrician's job and couldn't find additional work, the family decided it was as good a time as any to move near Christopher.
"It's not when we say, it's when God says," Bertha said of the decision to move in July 2016.
But Martin couldn't find work here and they soon discovered how costly it is in the Bay Area.
"We ran out of money very quickly," Bertha said. "We were staying in the car for four months."
The couple was accompanied by their 19-year-old son Isaac. Then 22-year-old Christopher took a leave of absence from Stanford to try to help the family. They stayed in a shelter in Sunnyvale for a short time, living among the ups and downs and the sometime altercations among other shelter clients, Martin said.
"It's the first time in my life that it has been like this. We have never been homeless before," he said.
Then Bertha met James, a previous client of the Opportunity Center, who overheard her asking for help on a phone in a McDonald's parking lot. He referred her to case worker Harry Byrd III at the Opportunity Center.
"I was calling 2-1-1 (help hotline). He said, 'Hang up. They are not going to hear you. You will be waiting a long time,'" Bertha recalled.
At the Opportunity Center they met case workers Harry Byrd III, Alyssa Cooke and Jessica Arevalo, who helped them receive Medi-Cal and locate housing. Martin found a job as an electrician and Bertha found a job at Heart and Home Collaborative, a dry woman;s shelter at the Stanford University Lutheran Church; they received a subsidy toward the first-month's rent and were able to save enough to cover the last month's rent, she said.
Martin recalled that by going step by step through the process and always making their meetings with case workers, they began to pull their lives together again.
"Once you have a job, it's the domino effect. We started going along the right channels," he said.
By December, just before Christmas, they moved into a residence at the Opportunity Center. Isaac has graduated from high school by studying remotely and Christopher is returning to Stanford next fall where he studies computer science symbolic systems.
But the family still struggles. Work is slow right now for Martin due to the winter rains, but the family is determined not to end up homeless again.
"We have to push now," he said.
Isaac said he never expected the family to be homeless. The experience has opened his eyes.
"It happens very easily. There are a lot of souls in here and it can happen to anyone at any time," he said.
The family is using their experiences to help others who are caught in long-term homelessness. Getting out of the cycle requires much courage and a willingness to trust. The latter is the first step, Dah said, toward getting people to accept that there is hope.
The Rios family is now giving back by helping others to find their way through similar struggles. Martin volunteers at the Opportunity Drop-in Center and the Downtown Streets team; Bertha works with homeless women at the Heart and Home Women's Shelter; Christopher is working on a social network to to support those in the Silicon Valley affected by long-term homelessness.
When a person in need says the couple couldn't understand what it is like to be in their situation, Bertha and Martin have a ready answer: "We have been there -- we were homeless too. Now we try to help other people," Martin said.
Jose Garcia and Jose Hernandez are also casualties of the calamitous rental market. They lived in apartments in Mountain View for 25 years before suddenly experiencing homelessness.
Sitting ramrod-straight and with a thick, neat, black mustache, Hernandez, at 75, is now blind and has trouble hearing. But before his health began to fail he worked for decades at the Mountain View Target store, in pharmacies and at other retail locations as a cashier and in other merchandising positions. Low pay and illness eventually took a toll, he said.
"We spent all the time paying high rents around here. We had an apartment with two rooms for $750 and it went up and up to $2,000. I became sick and sick and sick and I became broke," he said.
Garcia has cared for his uncle for nearly a decade. He doesn't have a job because Hernandez requires full-time care. In December 2015 they received a 60-day eviction notice. With help from an attorney, they were able to stay another 30 days.
"We went looking for a place to go. We couldn't believe it -- the rent was so crazy. We became homeless; we slept in the car on the streets and in shelters for seven months. Then we came to the Opportunity Center and worked with case managers," Garcia recalled.
After an initial false start with a potential place in Gilroy -- the walking distance was too far for Hernandez with his disability -- another case worker found them an apartment in four to six weeks.
Hernandez summed up his circumstances and where he is at this point in time:
"Oh, my God. It was very, very sad for me. It was an experience I never had before. Now I'm really satisfied with this place. Now I can be here as long as I wanted. It's secure; they take care of everything here," he said.