original article published May 5, 2021 by the Milpitas Beat
As reported by The Beat in September, 2019, homelessness is on the rise in Milpitas. That year, the biennial survey by Santa Clara County known as a Point-in-Time Count or PIT Count, put the number at 125, an 89% increase from the previous count of 66 in 2017.
Now, two years later, after one of the worst pandemics in recent history, the picture looks even bleaker. But we don’t know for sure, as 2021’s count has been moved to 2022 due to COVID-19 health concerns.
In this, Part I of a 3-part series, we take a deeper look at the homeless situation in and around Milpitas. How does Milpitas compare to other cities, counties, states, and the nation as a whole? What is the city doing to address the problem? We explore the efforts of nonprofits and county agencies in combating this age-old dilemma. And we lift the dirty rag off the stereotypical face of homelessness to show you what it really is — local people falling on bad times. It could be me, or it could be you. As one county official put it, “Every member of our community deserves a safe and stable home — and it is our collective responsibility to make this vision a reality.”
He’s 54. And homeless. Not by choice, of course. A truck driver by trade, Gilbert’s been on the streets roughly 10 years now. His driver’s license has long been expired. Now he gets around by bike. Says Gilbert, “Once you start to slide down the economic ladder, sometimes it can be difficult to get back up.”
For the past 8 years, Gilbert has lived in a tent at a homeless encampment that stretches about a mile along Coyote Creek in a small commercial zone in north San Jose. “I was in a car before this but it was much more difficult, “ he explains. “I know that sounds funny but it’s true. Nobody wants you parking on their property, plus there’s gas and maintenance. I actually feel very fortunate to be here where it’s calm, safe, and quiet.”
Gilbert estimates there are around 25 other unhoused people living at his camp, which he likens to a little neighborhood. “It can be quite hectic elsewhere,” he says. “Different camps have different crowds with different ideas. I wouldn’t trade this place for anything — except maybe an RV. That would be nice.”
While Gilbert has seen a slow but steady rise in the local homeless population due to the pandemic, for the most part his life has actually improved. Regular sweeps by the city have been put on hold to comply with guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which state: “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The city has set up bathroom facilities at several camps, and many unhoused individuals have even received stimulus checks. “It’s definitely been nice not having to move every month, “says Gilbert. “I hope there’s an end to COVID-19, but I know when that happens the sweeps will be back. And when they do these sweeps they don’t direct you elsewhere. They just tell you to leave. You have to find a new place on your own.”
Sweeps are often a city’s solution to complaints of theft and violence from businesses and residents near encampments. There is often little proof, however, nor do cities always have viable housing alternatives.
DEFINING THE PROBLEM
Defining homelessness can be tricky, but is essential in any assessment by city and state governments to help secure funding for local programs. While the PIT Count is one way of assessing unhoused numbers, it is not the only way, nor is it definitive by any means. Developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it is carried out by local agencies called Continuums of Care (CoCs). For Santa Clara County, the CoC is Destination: Home, a public-private partnership.
The PIT Count endeavors to track unsheltered homeless individuals like Gilbert, as well as families. This involves going out and physically counting people, wherever they may be — at bus and train stations, in parks and tents, and in vehicles and abandoned properties. It also includes those in temporary housing: emergency shelters, transitional housing, and safe havens.
According to Sharon Goei, Building Safety and Housing Director for the City of Milpitas, the PIT Count does not account for “people who live in overcrowded conditions, in inadequate or unstable housing, or students in the School District McKinney-Vento program which was established under the Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and has a broader definition of homelessness.” It also doesn’t include those who are couch surfing — temporarily staying at a friend’s or family member’s house.
Regardless of the counting method, everyone agrees that homelessness is on the rise. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, California was home to over 151,000 homeless individuals in 2019, the largest homeless population in the nation. Santa Clara County counted 9,706 homeless in 2019, up 31% from 2017. Milpitas’ jump of 89% was the second highest percent increase in the county, behind a 147% increase in Sunnyvale. For every 1 person who leaves homelessness, 3 more become homeless, according to county figures.
As you can see, homelessness is a monumental problem on a vast scale. Milpitas is merely the tip of the iceberg. Nationwide, over 560,000 homeless people were counted in 2019. That’s 17 out of every 10,000. Said David Low, Director of Policy and Communications at Destination: Home, “We know homelessness is on the rise overall — whether we’ve enhanced some of the ways to count them or the fact they’re more visible. We’re facing a growing crisis and a growing required level of response to meet it.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
With input from over 8,000 community members, Destination: Home has collaborated with local county and city agencies to create a roadmap: the 2020-2025 Community Plan to End Homelessness (this is an updated version of their 2015-2020 plan). Their goals include housing 20,000 people by 2025, achieving a 30% reduction in the annual number of new homeless, and doubling the amount of temporary housing. Said Ray Bramson, Chief impact Officer at Destination: Home, “The general idea is that we have thousands and thousands of people who are homeless in Santa Clara County, so we’re going to need everybody on board, all hands on deck, to get the job done.”
The overall strategy of the 2020-2025 Community Plan to End Homelessness can be broken down into three main parts: (1) to address the root causes of homelessness through systemic and policy changes, (2) to expand homelessness prevention and housing programs, and (3) to improve the quality of life for unsheltered individuals. Said Bramson, “The plan is truly a community plan. It’s not owned by any one entity. It’s nonprofits and government jurisdictions and individuals and corporate partners and folks who have experienced homelessness, all coming together to work on putting an end to homelessness.”
With the cost of living in the Bay Area constantly on the rise, the unhoused problem is akin to the sinking of the Titanic. While the crew struggles frantically to bail out water, the massive ocean liner continues to sink. The key then is in sealing the holes. Said Bramson, “We all know it costs a lot of money to live here. There are a huge number of economic stressors and a lot of vulnerable people who are living paycheck to paycheck.” These people include veterans, families, and individuals who have lost their connection with their family.
In the fall of 2020, the City of Milpitas endorsed the Community Plan. Said Mayor Tran, “As Mayor of Milpitas, I have definitely seen an increase in homelessness every year. I personally know people who are homeless, so it’s a personal issue for me. I’m very serious about addressing the issue.” The city appointed then Vice Mayor Bob Nunez and Councilmember Karina Dominguez to serve on the Santa Clara County Unhoused Task Force, the goal of which was to try and identify emergency assistance for unhoused people that could be implemented as soon as possible.
As a result, the City of Milpitas signed a one-year contract with Santa Clara County to assess the homeless on a case-by-case basis. With help from Abode Services, the team aims to identify the needs of those living outdoors or in vehicles and refer them to appropriate services, including housing and health programs.
Mayor Tran has also appointed a Homelessness Task Force, set to meet once a month, made up of Milpitas residents. Said Tran, “As a city government, we always want to do everything we can to ensure that our residents are at the table. The Homelessness Task Force is made up of residents from every corner of town. My hope is that they come up with some creative solutions to the homelessness issue. It’s a very balanced and diverse group and I couldn’t be more proud.” The first meeting of the Homelessness Task Force was held on March 10, 2021.
In Part II of The Face of Homelessness in & around Milpitas, we’ll look at other city initiatives and nonprofit services that try to improve the quality of life of the homeless. We’ll explore healthcare options and camp cleanup efforts. And we’ll meet Nicci, who has been living in an RV ever since her husband died of cancer 7 years ago.