The percentage of homeless people living in their vehicles in Santa Clara County has more than doubled in the past two years, accounting for 18% of the county's unhoused population, according to a new Santa Clara County homeless census.
In 2017, people using their vans, cars, campers or RVs as homes totaled only 8% of the homeless, the same rate as in 2015.
Those 1,750 vehicle dwellers are among the 9,700 individuals across Santa Clara County who were identified as homeless in January as part of a biennial Point in Time count.
The census quantifies what local cities have been grappling with for several years — growing numbers of RVs lining the streets — which has sparked debate over law enforcement, public safety, the housing crisis and how best to extend a helping hand.
East Palo Alto recently launched a safe-parking program to provide space and services for residents living in vehicles. The Palo Alto City Council earlier this summer agreed to explore a similar pilot program, potentially involving land east of U.S. Highway 101.
Overall, the county's population of homeless increased by 31% from 2017, the census determined. Palo Alto saw its numbers of homeless rise 13% in that time, from 276 to 313 individuals. The figure includes persons staying in parks, shelters, motels or hotels, and structures not normally used for sleeping.
The rise was more pronounced in Mountain View, jumping from 416 people up to 606, a 46% increase. The increase was even larger for Sunnyvale: 371 more homeless, a 147% spike in the past two years.
Even Los Altos Hills, among the richest towns in the U.S., reported its first-ever homeless population: two individuals.
Conducted every two years, the Point in Time census is performed by sending out dozens of volunteers to canvass streets to count as many homeless individuals as they can find. County officials have spent the last six months finalizing the results of the January census.
Beyond the on-the-street count, volunteers administered surveys between Jan. 29 and Feb. 28 to a randomized sample of individuals and families currently experiencing homelessness, which captured demographic information and details including causes of homelessness and the services they use.
Respondents ranked the top reasons for their homelessness as job loss (30%), alcohol or drug use (22%), divorce/separation/breakup (15%), eviction (14%) and argument/asked to leave by family or friend (13%).
One-third of the survey respondents said this was their first experience of being homeless, and just under half said they could have stayed in their homes if they had had some kind of basic rental assistance.
"The reasons for homelessness are many and varied," said Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, in a press release. "The high cost and shortage of housing are making a bad problem worse. Combining our efforts to prevent homelessness and create supportive housing with 2016 Measure A — Affordable Housing Bond — funds will continue to be an essential strategy in addressing homelessness. So far, the County has committed $234 million of Measure A funds toward 19 housing developments that will collectively add 1,437 apartments for the most vulnerable in our community."
While the percentage of people living in vehicles rose sharply in two years, there was a commensurate drop in the numbers of people living in emergency or transitional housing: from 36% of the homeless population in 2017 to 22% in 2019, according to the survey.
The Santa Clara County census results mirror the trends being reported in other Bay Area counties. Compared to 2017, homelessness increased by 30% in San Francisco, 45% in Alameda, and 21% in San Mateo counties.
Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioner Steven Lee said the numbers in Palo Alto do not surprise him.
"We have seen the count go up across the Bay Area and California. Homelessness is a symptom of our region's much larger housing crisis and was the inevitable result of the collective inaction of local city councils across the Bay Area, including our own, to build housing," he said, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the commission, which hasn't officially taken action on the issue.
At the HRC retreat last month Lee asked that the commission make homelessness one its top priorities for the next fiscal year. On July 11, Lee was named to lead the commission's homeless initiatives.
"I look forward to studying the report and inviting the county, other government agencies, nonprofits, local stakeholders and members of the unhoused population to testify before the commission, so we can learn more about what Palo Alto can do to address homelessness in our community.
"Many of our neighboring cities have already taken action to begin addressing homelessness in their communities. It's time for Palo Alto to catch up, to do its fair share and to more seriously address the issue of homelessness and housing in our community. It is one of THE defining moral and economic issues of our time and region," he said.
• Who is living in RVs along Palo Alto's El Camino Real? Read their stories.
• Watch or listen to a discussion about the people in the El Camino Real RVs on the Weekly's webcast, "Behind the Headlines." Weekly journalists Veronica Weber, Cierra Bailey and Jocelyn Dong discuss how the residents manage day-to-day life, their encounters with the police, their housing prospects and more. The show is now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.