The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to find a replacement for the north county's cold-weather homeless shelter at the Sunnyvale Armory, now being demolished.
The shelter closed its doors for the last time on March 31, and "we are now without a facility to serve the 136 folks who put their heads down there every night, during the four cold-weather months of the year," December through March, said Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district spans Mountain View and Palo Alto, among other north county cities. "This has raised very legitimate concerns about what are the next steps."
In recent years the county has moved towards a "housing first" model that seeks to fund subsidized housing for the chronically homeless, including 124 such units to be built at the Sunnyvale Armory site. (The National Guard decided to end its deal with the county to use the site for free.) But housing funds are scarce, which is why Simitian and fellow supervisor David Cortese proposed the move to find a new shelter site.
"I think 'housing first' is long-term strategy and I think it's important we have a long-term strategy," Simitian said. "But right here, right now, people need a roof over their head."
The Armory was one of three major shelters for the homeless in the county, the others being in San Jose and Morgan Hill. Simitian noted that in the northern half of the county there are now "a dozen communities with roughly a third of the county's population that don't have a large shelter in place."
According to the 2013 county homelessness survey, Mountain View had 136 unsheltered homeless that year, while the northern 12 cities in the county (basically the entire county minus San Jose, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and unincorporated areas such as San Martin), had 1,098 of the county's 5,674 unsheltered homeless.
Simitian added that without such a shelter, other residents "shouldn't be surprised" if some of those 1,098 homeless "are going to be out in the neighborhood" where, he noted, they have inevitably caused a "quality of life issue" for other residents.
As now required by law, Mountain View city staff released a general plan housing element report this week identifying areas of the city where such a shelter could go. The report identifies the "general industrial" zoned areas in the city totaling 248 acres, particularly several dozen lots on Pioneer Way. It's an area where auto shops, offices and warehouses are now common. The report says most of the street's parcels are large enough to accommodate 139 homeless and would be within walking distance of the Evelyn Avenue light rail station and downtown transit station, though the street is separated from downtown by Highway 85.
Supervisors and members of the public who spoke at the meeting all supported Simitian's call for a new shelter somewhere in the north county, including Sunnyvale resident Judy Pierce. She said she represented a group of Sunnyvale residents who have taken the task upon themselves of trying to help the homeless once served by the Armory and who have no place to go, such as when a rain storm hit in the days after it closed. She thanked Simitian and others for taking on the issue.
Jenny Niklaus of Homefirst, a nonprofit that ran the Sunnyvale Armory shelter under its former name, EHC Lifebuilders, also supported the search for a new location.
"A 'hot and a cot' doesn't end homelessness, but if we consider how we can marry it with things that end homelessness we have an opportunity to transform the cold-weather model," Niklaus said of services social workers provide to help the homeless get back on their feet.
While finding a site for a homeless shelter where neighbors won't complain may be one challenge, "In this particular market finding the right place at a cost that can be managed is more likely to be the challenge," Simitian said. The city has annually budgeted only $200,000 to run the Armory site, where no rent was charged to the county.
There is also an idea that's been floated for "warming stations," which would house the homeless only during bad weather in various locations, such as churches.
"In some ways we are more likely to be successful with a single (shelter) than with a dozen smaller venues, all of which raise neighborhood concerns," Simitian said of the "roaming" warming station model. "The Sunnyvale Armory was right across the street and next door to residential development and managed to make it work. But I don't think that (is the sort of situation) anyone is anticipating."
One formerly homeless man, Michael Fletcher, said he had been helped by the Sunnyvale shelter. "This is Silicon Valley," he said, addressing the supervisors. "If we could come up with all these modern technologies, for the life of me I can't figure out why we can't get it together (for the homeless). Because that could be your brother or your sister."
"We need to find a replacement shelter and we need to do it pretty darn quickly because those cold-weather months are coming," Simitian said.