Can new jobs and microunits help fix Silicon Valley’s homelessness epidemic?

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Silicon Valley Business Journal
Lauren Hepler

In a region where median income hovers around $90,000 a year, $500 worth of cell phone vouchers and grocery store gift cards might not sound like much for a month’s work.

It’s enough for Ron Harrison, a 67-year-old San Francisco native and retiree who has lived in his van on the outskirts of downtown San Jose for about five years.

For the last two years, Harrison’s daily routine has included a shower and trip through the sauna at the gym he belongs to, followed by a four-hour shift at Downtown Streets Team — a Palo Alto-based nonprofit started by former NapsterCEO Eileen Richardson that hires homeless individuals to maintain area cities through contracts with various organizations.

“It’s a remarkable program,” said Harrison, who once studied sociology at San Jose State University. “They want to make homeless people part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

He is especially enthusiastic recounting the times strangers have asked for directions or restaurant recommendations, which happens much more often now that the nonprofit has expanded to downtown. In July, Downtown Streets Team added eight people to a pilot program with Groundwerx, a group associated with the San Jose Downtown Association that is funded by businesses to clean up the area plagued by chronic vandalism and haphazard waste.

Though workers like Harrison are technically volunteers, and therefore not paid the city’s $10.15 an hour minimum wage, the wait list for one of the 55 San Jose slots in Downtown Streets Team’s job skills training program has stretched up to 15 weeks, said program manager Brandon Davis.

“There are so many people that really fell on hard times and were out of work,” he said. “That gap in employment doesn’t allow them to re-enter the workforce.”

And while Downtown Streets Team tries to pair those who can work with more stable jobs and housing, other homeless services providers are responding to a simultaneous crush of demand amid increasing economic stratification in Silicon Valley.

More than a third of Santa Clara County’s 7,300-plus homeless residents are chronically homeless, according to county records. These individuals also disproportionately face complicating factors like mental illness, disabilities or addiction that can entail expensive, taxpayer-funded visits to the emergency room or stints in prison.

While the human toll of sleeping on the streets is hard to ignore — especially in one of the wealthiest region’s on earth — homelessness also presents nagging challenges for economic development efforts and businesses operating in areas with large transient populations.

As a result of the demand for services at all levels, area governments and nonprofits are increasingly approaching homelessness as an economic issue that requires new types of planning in a region that often pays lip service to social innovation.

“How do we disrupt or innovate our approach to land use and housing?” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of San Jose homeless services organization Destination: Home. “That’s a call to the Valley’s disruptive thinkers.”

Getting to work

With Silicon Valley’s daunting homeless population, workforce development programs like Downtown Streets Team often make incremental progress on a much bigger issue.

Since last July, 26 out of about 55 Downtown Streets Team participants in San Jose have found housing through the program, while 30 have found employment. About 78 percent of those who found work held the job for more than 90 days.

Those in the organization emphasize that the program is designed as a stepping stone to full-time employment and reliable housing. While they participate in Downtown Streets Team, volunteers get the “basic need vouchers” for food and shelter, not cash. Davis said case managers can also allocate funds to help participants with things like housing deposits, fines for holding onto shopping carts or uniforms required to start new jobs.

“We’ve seen an increase in folks in the last year who are interested in contributing to their stability,” he said. “The challenge right now is really feeding the need and seeking out community contracts that will allow us to shrink our wait list.”

Prior to the contract with Groundwerx, Downtown Streets Team won two city contracts worth a combined $1.25 million, said Ray Bramson, the director of homeless response with San Jose’s Department of Housing. One is designed to clean up blighted areas of East San Jose and the other sends volunteer workers to remove trash from San Jose’s notorious 200-person encampment on the banks of the Coyote Creek known as “the Jungle” — one of the country’s largest camps of homeless people.

While Harrison said he only typically fills a few trash bags per four-hour shift downtown, he recalls one day in the Jungle when a team of 25 people removed 469 bags of trash. Davis said Downtown Streets Team surpassed its contractual duty to clean up a total 1,000 cubic yards of trash, collecting nine times that much.

Harrison’s teams sometimes get help from volunteers, like the 10 employees per month that Google Inc. sends. The technology company pays the nonprofit $10 per hour for each of its employee’s work, which generates about $400 for the organization in a given shift.

“On any given night here in San Jose, we’ve got about 5,000 people who are homeless on the streets,” said Ray Bramson, the homeless response manager at the city of San Jose’s Department of Housing. “The development of job slots is just as important as the development of housing.”

Building from scratch

For once, there is a silver lining to Silicon Valley’s struggles with homelessness.

Over the last 30 months, a coalition of providers working on a countywide initiative called Housing 1,000 — a local spinoff of the national Housing 100,000 campaign — have secured housing for 725 chronically homeless people, Loving said. About 83 percent have stayed in that housing for more than a year.

However, she fears that she has already tapped all the available resources.

“The numbers are still overwhelming, but at least we’ve found a model that works,” she said. “But if we can’t create the housing and places for people to go, we’re going to hit a roadblock.”

A severe lack of affordable housing in Silicon Valley that has festered during years of limited production of new units has been exposed by public funding cuts to housing programs during the recession.

While plenty of people with jobs struggle to afford $2,000-a-month rents — like the region’s tens of thousands of service industry workers — those who are chronically homeless or at risk of becoming homeless find themselves up against steep barriers to finding stable housing.

As of last year, Santa Clara County was home to 7,631 homeless people — 9 percent of whom were children under 18 years old — according to a county Census, though Loving said that official numbers likely underestimate the full population.