Santa Clara County's homeless population is the lowest it's been in a decade, bringing in praise from city and county officials who say the efforts to reduce homelessness are finally paying off.
But in the North County, things are looking worse than ever. The county released a report this week that gives a "snapshot" head count of the ever-shifting homeless population in its jurisdiction. The report found that between 2013 and 2015, the homeless population in Mountain View ballooned from 139 to a high of 276.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said there's a clear connection between the increase in Mountain View's homeless population and the loss of the Sunnyvale Armory, a cold-weather homeless shelter for as many as 136 people before it was closed for demolition last year. The data seems to indicate that all those displaced people have headed northward, Simitian said.
"I (proposed) back in early 2014 that we need a replacement shelter because I think this was, altogether, predictable," Simitian said.
The city now has 271 people with no access to an emergency shelter or transitional housing who are stuck on the street, living in cars or living in encampments around the city. People who are homeless in Mountain View are frequently referred to the nearest drop-in shelter, in San Jose, according to Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency (CSA) in Mountain View.
The lack of homeless resources in the area could be fueling the high homeless count, according to Ky Le, Santa Clara County's director of homeless systems. While cities like San Jose have centrally located homeless shelters and housing, and employment services for people in need of housing, the same cannot be said of Mountain View, which has no nearby drop-in shelters.
"Mountain View in general doesn't have a lot of permanent supportive housing, and as far as I know, it's never had a shelter program," Le said.
The escalating cost of living in the area might also be causing homelessness to spike. In a county-wide survey of nearly 1,000 homeless people, 68 percent of respondents said that they couldn't afford the rent. Fifty-seven percent said they had no job or income, and 38 percent said there was no housing available to them.
Myers said the increase in homelessness in Mountain View isn't a big surprise to him. He said more and more people are coming in to CSA for homeless services each year, and it's starting to put a strain on the nonprofit as the staff struggles to find permanent housing or shelter space for clients.
"We have to take resources from other programs and put it into homeless services," Myers said.
Part of the problem, he said, is that the North County is relatively affluent compared with the rest of the county, creating a perception that everyone in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Los Altos is wealthy and that homelessness is not an issue.
In addition to needing more shelter space, Myers said, more money needs to be put toward emergency assistance for people who are on the verge of becoming homeless, rather than waiting until people are out on the street. Emergency rent, food and other services, he said, can help to keep someone housed, which is a lot easier than trying to find someone a new home.
The county-wide survey found that 34 percent of homeless people polled said employment assistance would have prevented their homelessness, followed by 31 percent who believed rental assistance would have made the difference.
Simitian said he and his staff have been working to find a facility to replace the armory in the North County area, but that finding a new location in this red-hot real estate market is nothing short of a "Herculean task."
"This is not a good time to be looking for vacant facilities in Silicon Valley," he said.
The push for more emergency shelter space may not be consistent with the county-wide goal of pursing permanent housing and long-term solutions to homelessness, Simitian said, but it would certainly help the immediate needs of hundreds of homeless people in the North County with nowhere to go.
Offsetting the increases in the North County are substantial reductions in homelessness in San Jose, where a vast majority of the county's homeless population resides. The homeless count found 4,063 homeless people this year, versus 4,770 in 2013, due in part to a city-wide initiative to provide housing and jobs to homeless people living in encampments throughout the city, according to the press release.
"The good news is that the overall numbers are headed in the right direction," said county Supervisor Dave Cortese in a press release. "While we still have a large unmet need, those efforts are beginning to pay off."
The homeless population count comes after a comprehensive study last month by the county on what the roughly 6,700 homeless people in Santa Clara County cost taxpayers each year. Estimates found that $520 million a year is spent on services for the county's homeless residents, with health care costs accounting for 53 percent of it, followed by justice system agencies, which took up 34 percent, mostly for jail costs.