By Jennifer Loving
Special to the Mercury News
Over the past 10 days at least four homeless men died from exposure in our community. The media were quick to cover this, detailing what we already know: It’s really cold, and that means people living outside will die. There shouldn’t be anything surprising about this. Walking into fire will kill you, jumping off a tall bridge will kill you, and sleeping outside when the temperatures are below freezing will kill you, too.
There was also a tremendous response. Nonprofit agencies and county departments worked together to walk the creeks, encampments and streets passing out blankets, triaging the sick and ensuring that people knew shelter beds were available. Those teams were our heroes last weekend, mitigating death however they could. But the effort is similar to bailing out a lifeboat with a handful of thimbles even as we are swamped by a tsunami of homelessness.
Santa Clara County has the dubious honor of having the fifth-highest homeless population in the nation — we, the creators of iPhones and Teslas, of search engines and social networking that we now can’t live without. Each one of these technologies required millions of dollars in investments. Why aren’t we willing to apply similar resources and innovations to solving our local homelessness crisis?
Homelessness has long been considered an impossible and reluctantly acceptable problem, and that perception has allowed us to move slowly and fund inadequately while supplying resources that mitigate the suffering. But it has not encouraged us to collectively and systematically solve this crisis.
This has been coupled with the mythology that people actually want to live outside, when the evidence tells us that is untrue. As Paul Rogers reported Sunday in the Mercury News, encampments have become people’s homes, and they are reluctant, just as any of us would be, to sacrifice that dwelling — however horrific — to take a chance on a bed for the night. But when offered a place of their own, 93 percent of our homeless population says they would readily accept it.
We know the solution to homelessness: housing. But there’s no cavalry coming, no flood of resources on the horizon from our broken federal government or our leaders in Sacramento. However unconscionable, that means the responsibility lies with us. The inventors, creators, elected officials and experts who can work together to increase the one resource that solves the crisis — housing — are all right here in Silicon Valley.
We are making progress. Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose in particular have invested large sums in Housing First strategies that provide homes and preventive services. The outcomes are remarkably good. Help chronically homeless people secure housing and close to 75 percent of the time they will do whatever it takes to keep it. And along the way, they get better and stop straining our high-cost systems such as emergency rooms and jails.
Our current efforts are not enough. We need dedicated funding and land to build new units. We need to explore micro-housing models, and also work collectively to ensure that measures to increase local funds for affordable housing are successful — and that they are coupled with unspent redevelopment funds and other money to increase the supply of housing. We need the business community to help provide upfront capital to bring affordable housing projects on line. We need to commit together to a measured reduction of the thousands of men, women and children who live in our streets.
Mostly, though, we need to stop talking — and start doing. And to let go of the myths that lull us into believing that homelessness is a problem that will go away on its own.
Jennifer Loving is executive director of Destination: Home, a public-private partnership working to house the homeless in Santa Clara County. She wrote this for this newspaper.