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County expands homeless programs while searching for new shelter

Santa Clara County supervisors approve $1.2 million to develop new programs for the homeless

Faced with a shortage of beds to accommodate the county's homeless population this coming winter, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved $1.2 million for various programs targeting its neediest residents, including agreements with the busy but cash-strapped nonprofit, InnVision Shelter Network.

The aid package was prompted by the recent closure of the old Sunnyvale Armory, which has served for decades as a cold-weather shelter for the homeless. Now slated for redevelopment, the armory site had offered about 125 beds. Its closure left county officials scrambling to find new locations for a cold-weather shelter. Supervisor Joe Simitian, who made the motion Tuesday to approve the funds, said that for the county, "Time is our enemy."

"The cold weather months will be on us shortly," Simitian said in a statement. "Folks who used to find shelter at the Sunnyvale Armory will need somewhere else to go."

Simitian, who on Aug. 18 updated the Palo Alto City Council on the county's search for the shelter, said officials had identified two potential sites. The first plan, to open a shelter on a different Sunnyvale site, was rejected by the city. The county then turned its attention to Mountain View, only to see that site purchased by someone else just as the county was preparing to make its offer.

Finding a place for a homeless shelter, Simitian told the Palo Alto council, is "very much on the top of our to-do list." He noted that four people died last year during an unexpected cold spell and said in a statement Tuesday that this "can't be allowed to happen again."

With its unanimous vote, the county allocated up to $770,000 to HomeFirst or other providers of housing programs to lease and operate a homeless shelter at a site to be determined. The funds would be used to establish an emergency shelter capable of accommodating at least 50 individuals, though the location remains a major wildcard with just three months left until the cold-weather season.

The issue of homelessness became particularly pronounced in Palo Alto a year ago, when the City Council agreed to clamp down on what had become in the words of City Manager James Keene a "de facto homeless shelter" at Cubberley Community Center. While agreeing to keep Cubberley closed at night, the council also agreed to pass a new law banning people from living in their cars, though enactment of the law was suspended after a similar ordinance in Los Angeles was struck down by a court decision.

The closure of Cubberley, coupled with city's severe shortage of affordable housing, prompted concerns from homeless advocates about where the displaced residents will go. The challenge of supporting the homeless population this coming winter has been further compounded this year by the financial struggles of Innvision Shelter Network, Palo Alto's largest provider of homeless services. The nonprofit operates the drop-in center at the Opportunity Center and runs Hotel de Zink, which operates emergency shelters at local churches, as well as the food programs Breaking Bread and the Food Closet.

Faced with gaping budget deficit of more than $500,000, the Network has been scrambling to find new funding and adjust its programs. As the Weekly reported last month, the nonprofit recently [ http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2014/07/19/palo-alto-nonprofit-for-homeless-low-income-residents-faces-crisis reduced the Breaking Bread program from seven to five days a week, saving $22,000 annually. In addition, InnVision Shelter Network will be handing off operation of the Palo Alto Food Closet to the Palo Alto-based Downtown Streets Team.

The package of services that the county approved Tuesday offers the Network a rare bit of good news. The Board of Supervisors agreed to allocate $125,400 to the nonprofit and to Project WeHOPE in East Palo Alto to increase the number of shelter beds and to help these organizations establish the new shelter programs.

Specifically, the agreement would allow InnVision Shelter Network to expand its rotating shelter, Hotel de Zink, for 90 days during the cold-weather season. The $75,000 allocation would allow the nonprofit to double its number of "enhanced shelter beds" (which can be reserved on a night-by-night basis and which come with case-management services, according to a county staff report) from 18 to 36 during this period. Project WeHOPE, which currently offers five beds of emergency shelter and case management, would be able to serve an additional 10 people under the additional $50,400 offered by the county.

In addition, the county approved a $163,200 agreement with the Network to implement a new motel-voucher program, targeting homeless families with children. County officials estimate that there are 34 homeless, three-person families in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale on any given night, according to a report from Nancy Pena, the county's director of mental health. The new program would have the ability to place 34 families in motels for up to eight weeks each. The Network operates a similar program in San Mateo County.

"This has been a successful approach in other areas, and I think it opens up a whole new set of possibilities," Simitian said of the motel-voucher program. "Finding suitable space for homeless families has been a long-time challenge in Santa Clara County."

Mila Zelkha, director of real estate and facilities for InnVision Shelter Network, agreed and said the plan approved by the board "helps to provide additional options for those among us who are in crisis."

The county also included $100,000 for outreach programs during particularly cold nights. The county would work with outreach teams from community-based organizations to "distribute cold weather gear, disseminate information about available services and provide information about how to recognize and prevent cold weather injury," Pena's report states.

"The purpose of the inclement-weather outreach activities is to identify and intervene on behalf of individuals who are suffering from or at-risk of cold weather injuries," Pena wrote. "Depending on the severity of their condition and overall health, some individuals could be transported to local hospitals while others could be offered one-night motel stays."

While these steps are intended to dent the impact of the Armory's closure, the county still hopes to find a replacement site in the near future.

The Board also included a provision for expanding other homelessness reduction and prevention programs in the event that a large shelter facility cannot be found in time for winter. Staff had initially recommended using $670,000 for these programs in the event a new shelter can't be opened.

The board ultimately agreed that, absent a new shelter, between half and a third of these funds would be added to the motel-voucher program. Simitian, who recommended the revised approach, said that while solving the problem of homelessness is a worthy goal, it's important to include funds for a near-term solution.

"We've got about three months before the weather turns sour and we have 125 folks who used to have a place to put their heads down and who don't have a place to put their heads down anymore," Simitian told the Weekly. "That's my immediate concern."

Simitian said the county will continue to search for a suitable shelter site but stressed the importance of having a "fall-back plan" if such a site doesn't emerge soon.

"The bad news is we're having a tough time finding a suitable shelter site," Simitian said. "The good news is we've got a fallback plan if no site emerges in the immediate future."

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