Holiday Spirit

Daphne Ross, a volunteer with CSA, sorts through donated persimmons for the nonprofit's food pantry. CSA is one of seven local agencies that benefit from donations to the Voice's Holiday Fund. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted December 6, 2019

Deepening housing crisis leaves CSA busier than ever
Nonprofit serves as the last line of defense against rising homelessness and housing instability

by Kevin Forestieri

For several decades, the Community Services Agency (CSA) of Mountain View and Los Altos has been trying to solve a problem that's impossible to ignore.

Homelessness and poverty among several Bay Area counties have worsened in recent years, despite record low unemployment and an economy -- by almost all measures -- that is sailing toward a 10th straight year of growth. Mountain View had an estimated 37 homeless residents in 2011, which has skyrocketed to 606 in 2019.

Income inequality and the rising cost of living are the likely culprits, squeezing families out of their homes and sometimes onto the streets, said Tom Myers, CSA's longtime executive director. The nonprofit has been providing food and shelter to needy residents since the 1950s, but the problem was more invisible and easier to ignore back then, Myers said.

"The community does see the issues that we deal with as priorities now," he said. "Twenty years ago, there were people who just looked the other way or didn't want to deal with CSA and our issues. Now almost everybody understands that there is poverty in our community."

CSA, founded in 1957, has long been a backstop for families who are struggling to pay the bills in Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. About half of its $4.5 million budget goes straight into assistance programs to stave off homeless, including free groceries, rental assistance and even car repairs -- both ongoing and one-time help that can save families on the brink of homelessness.

CSA is also one of seven nonprofit organizations serving Mountain View residents that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations to the fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost, so 100% of contributions go to the recipients.

Myers, who recently celebrated his 20th year leading the nonprofit, said CSA's scope of work has rapidly evolved over the last two decades to meet the rising needs in the community. When he left his job overseeing fundraising and public relations for a local AIDS organization to join CSA in 1999, he said the nonprofit was probably best known as a soup kitchen. It served daily meals to a group of about 30 to 40 low-income and homeless residents, almost all of whom were middle-aged men.

It was around then, he said, that CSA shifted gears and ditched the soup kitchen for pantry services, giving clients access to fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and other ingredients that empowered them to make their own meals. It exploded in popularity, he said, with a broad cross-section of ages and families with children participating. Currently, that pantry gives out 1.5 tons of food daily and feeds about 3,600 people each year.

CSA used to operate a homeless shelter at local churches on a rotating basis, which Myers concedes wasn't a great service for its clients. The number of people each church could accommodate changed each time it moved -- some supporting only nine or 12 people -- and participants would have to adjust to a new location every month. It was a controversial decision, Myers said, but spending resources on case management and finding permanent housing was better than on tenuous shelter space.

"We were spending all this time and all this energy to put people in this shelter that's just going to close down and rotate in 30 days," Myers said. "The bottom line is you want to get people into housing."

Though CSA's services are geared almost entirely toward helping low-income people, it also runs one of the most successful senior nutrition programs in Santa Clara County. The organization serves up hot lunches five days a week at the Mountain View Senior Center, just shy of 33,000 meals in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Attendees speak highly of the food quality, Myers said, and it gives older adults a chance to socialize and fend off isolation and loneliness.

Each year, about 3,500 people receive help from CSA's homeless prevention services, which encompasses services like one-time financial assistance for rent or utility bills or vouchers for work clothes or transportation. That help extends to car repairs that families can't afford to pay, which has taken on a particular importance in Mountain View in recent months. The city is expected to open three "safe parking" sites for homeless residents who live in cars and RVs, and some of CSA's clients need to repair their four-wheel homes in order to participate.

Rather than cutting a blank check, clients have to provide estimates from three different mechanics and seek out the best deal. But Myers said case managers at the nonprofit guide them through the process. Some car mechanics have been huge supporters of CSA's clients, but he declined to say which ones.

A report released earlier this year found that homelessness in Santa Clara County has increased by 31% over the last two years, rising to 9,706 homeless residents in January 2019. Similar increases were also reported in other Bay Area counties, with homelessness increasing by 30% in San Francisco, 45% in Alameda, and 21% in San Mateo counties.

Though the public focus and media attention has been on homelessness, Myers said it's really just the tip of the iceberg. Only about 10% of CSA's clients are unhoused, and the other 90% are right on the edge of losing their homes. Similarly, residents living in RVs and other oversized vehicles in Mountain View have been a divisive topic for residents, yet they only represent a small fraction of the local homeless population. More than twice as many are living in cars.

"Of the people who come to us for services who are homeless, only 9% live in RVs, while 25% live in cars," he said. "Cars are a much bigger issue and all of that is still less than half of the total number of homeless people."

Some of the most hot-button issues in Mountain View revolve around homelessness and housing affordability, whether it be the density of new residential development, the recently passed ban prohibiting oversized vehicles on city streets or rent control. This leaves CSA's leadership in a tricky spot as an agency, striving to stay neutral while also advocating on behalf of its mission and the clients it serves.

Myers said it's gotten to the point where, for the first time, CSA's board of directors has established a "public policy" committee aimed at striking that careful balance and avoiding politicizing an organization that has enjoyed the support of residents with divergent views on some of the city's most controversial topics.

"Ultimately our job as a nonprofit is to not to be overly political or advocate for one particular way of thinking over another," he said. "The No. 1 thing we have to do as a nonprofit is to make sure our eyes are always on the prize, which is making sure the people in this town have services."

Reflecting on his 20 years with CSA, Myers said he doesn't see himself leaving the organization anytime soon. Despite offers and advice to move on to a larger regional nonprofit, he said he grew up in Mountain View and feels firmly rooted to the welfare of the city's residents. It's always been a bastion of diversity compared to other neighboring cities, and he worries that could erode someday.

"I feel strongly that a healthy community is one that is diverse, and that includes economic diversity," he said. "Mountain View has always reflected that economic diversity, but we are in danger of losing that."

Make a donation
2021 Recipient Agency

Community Health Awareness Council
CHAC serves Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and seven school districts. Among the services it offers are schoolbased counseling and programs to protect students from high-risk behaviors.

Community School of Music & Arts
The Community School of Music and Arts provides hands-on art and music education in the classrooms of the Mountain View Whisman School District.

Community Services Agency
CSA is the community's safety-net providing critical support services for low-income individuals and families, the homeless and seniors in northern Santa Clara County, including Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

Day Worker Center of Mountain View
The Day Worker Center of Mountain View provides a secure place for workers and employers to negotiate wages and work conditions. It serves workers with job placements, English lessons, job skills workshops and guidance.

Mayview Community Health Center
The MayView Community Health Center in Mountain View offers primary care services to low-income and uninsured patients in northern Santa Clara County. No patient is turned away for inability to pay for services, which include prenatal and pediatric care, cancer screenings and chronic disease management.

Mentor Tutor Connection
Mentor Tutor Connection matches adult volunteers who serve either as mentors with under-served youth in high school or as tutors to students in elementary and middle schools in Mountain View and Los Altos school districts.

YWCA of Silicon Valley
This group operates a 24-hour bilingual hotline and a safe shelter for women and their children. It also offers counseling and other services for families dealing with domestic violence.

As of March 21st, 132 donors have contributed $71,561 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

46 Anonymous14,808
Robert J. Rohrbacher100
David E. Simon & Lynn Gordon1,000
The PS & KW Creger Family Trust 500
Catherine Howard*
Charlene Miyashita50
David L. Hatt250
Dr. Dana E. Backman100
Lisa Topping and Mark Buggy*
Kevin & Robin Duggan*
James and Marilyn Kelly*
Jim & Mia Whitfield*
Pamela Baird & Greg Unangst1,000
David Offen & Gail Nyhan*
Paul & Sarah Donahue2,000
Lawrence K. Wallace50
Mitch & Barb Topol50
Dan Pappas250
Karen & David Keefer100
Andy & Liz Coe100
Bruce & Twana Karney350
Norma Jean Bodey Galiher200
Thomas J. Mucha350
Laurie Bonilla & Ed Perry250
Ellen Wheeler50
Sara and Ricardo Jenez*
Peter Stahl and Janet Sloan1,000
Mark Flider250
Lyle & Sally Sechrest100
Ross S Heitkamp*
Sandra and Craig Peterson200
Ann McCarty*
Murray Family100
Max Beckman-Harned1,400
Sally Evans100
Karen Skold50
Steve Attinger500
Emily Arcolino3,000
Christopher and Mary Dateo1,000
Ed Taub and Sheri Gish108
Marilyn Gildea*
The Depenhart Family750
Laura and Dave Blakely100
Mary DeMasters*
Boris Burtin100
Judy Atterholt & Chris Petti*
Kelly Family1,000
Herta Schreiner & Miguel Garcia200
Wesley D. Smith*
Ann Kapoun200
Linda & Greg Kannall25
Anne Johnston*
Jim & Alice Cochran700
E. Denley Rafferty100
Bruce Heflinger1,000
Patricia & Roger Hayes50
Dolores N. Goodman500
Leslie C. and Anita N. Nichols*
Randy Tsuda & Julie McCullough*
Ross & Karen Heitkamp350
Reese and Kathleen Cutler*
Gary and Yuko Kushner*
Rudy & Debra Robinson 200
David D. Meir-Levi25
Tom & Barbara Lustig*
Elisabeth Seaman500
Cliff and Kara Chambers1,000
Jeral Poskey250
Jerry & Sherri Morrison 700
Judith A. Manton500
Kathleen & Serge Bonte200
Shirley K. Ingalls*
Jas Laskowski3,000
Margaret Chapman100
David Fung*
Leona K. Chu*
Jeff Segall & Helen He200
Kevin & Laurel Smith Charitable Fund3,000
In Memory Of

Jim & Sally Hayden-Myer210
Julie Lovins & Greg Fowler*
Mack & Laila Holombo*
In Honor Of

Edward, Petros & Thalia200
Ed, Petros and Thalia185
Businesses & Organizations

ebernsconsulting, llc150
Hewlett Foundation8,750
Packard Foundation8,000