Dozens of homeless people lined up outside of the North County's new cold weather shelter Monday night, seeking a meal and a warm place to sleep.
The temporary shelter, opening its doors for the first time that night, didn't even exist a few weeks ago. But through fast planning and quick construction, Santa Clara County was able to piece together the 100-bed facility to house North County homeless residents in time for the harsh winter storms.
Grant Sisneros, a former San Francisco resident, was one of the first people to get in. After he had been pushed out of his home by a landlord looking to remodel the building, Sisneros said he has spent the last year living on the streets.
After being disappointed by other shelters, including one in San Francisco that provided chairs but no beds, he and his partner Colin Gerlach started camping out in a tent in Sunnyvale. To their surprise, the police were very accommodating and told them where they could stay. On their first night in the new shelter, Sisneros said he was happy with it so far. Shelter staff provided his service dog, Petunia, with a large cage to sleep in.
The new facility is run by the homeless services agency HomeFirst, and is seen as a much-needed replacement for the old Sunnyvale Armory. The armory provided 125 beds to homeless people in the North County during the cold winter months before it was closed down in early 2014. There was already little in the way of shelter space in the northern end of the county, and homeless people looking for a warm place to stay had to be referred to the Boccardo Reception Center down in San Jose.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian spearheaded an effort, starting in April 2014, to find a replacement for the armory. Options were pretty limited, Simitian told the Voice in June. The hot real estate market meant trying to find a new location for a shelter in the North County had been nothing short of a "Herculean task."
After Sunnyvale residents shot down an effort to use a county-owned parcel off of Central Expressway and North Fair Oaks Avenue, the county was able to secure a deal with the city of Sunnyvale for the shelter on the edge of Moffett Field, off of Innovation Way. The 7,000-square-foot facility now resides across the street from the headquarters of Juniper Networks, a multi-billion dollar company.
The facility will stay open throughout the winter months, and is scheduled to close down on March 31. The total cost of the shelter is expected to be just shy of $1.3 million.
But the deal with Sunnyvale came with strings attached. The new facility is a referral-only shelter. Places like the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos has to refer homeless clients to the facility in order for them to sleep there. Once they secure a bed, homeless people have to show up regularly -- anyone who is a no-show for three straight days loses his or her spot to someone on the waiting list.
The armory, by contrast, was a drop-in shelter where homeless people lined up and got in on a first-come, first-serve basis. After several meetings with the Sunnyvale City Council and local stakeholders, it was clear the county would have to accept the referral-only system, according to Ky Le, director of the county Office of Supportive Housing. The key problem at the Sunnyvale Armory, Le said, was that dozens of people who didn't make it into the shelter would be milling around the area, which was a problem for local residents.
"We want to try to reduce the impact on surrounding businesses. We want it to operate, but not have people converge there every night not knowing if they're going to get a bed," Le said.
Simitian, likewise, said the referral system could really end up benefiting the homeless in the end, as it provides stability and a guaranteed spot to sleep each night.
"When they come here, they know they have a place to stay," Simitian said.
The facility itself is a portable building, pieced together in about a week, consisting of a single giant room full of bed rolls for people to sleep on. In the back is a kitchen area with tables for breakfast and lunch, where HomeFirst staff began serving up mashed potatoes to the people trickling in.
Simitian said the portable building is ideal for the temporary location, and can be easily taken apart and put back together. While the facility itself appears modest, with no partitions, Simitian said the very open floor plan makes it easier to handle changes ratio of men, women and families who show up. Overall, he said, it's an improvement over the Sunnyvale Armory, even though it will only last through March.
"The armory had seen a lot of years of wear and tear. In many ways, this is an upgrade," Simitian said.
The mood was noticeably calm throughout the facility on its opening night. Many of the HomeFirst staff said they had worked at the Sunnyvale Armory for decades, and were more than ready for the new shelter. Local faith-based organizations were at the ready to pitch in food and other resources, just as they had with the Sunnyvale Armory before it closed, said HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton.
A growing problem
The loss of the Sunnyvale Armory marked a significant blow to Santa Clara County's homeless services. During what's called a "point in time" count in January, the county had about 6,500 homeless people, of which nearly 71 percent were deemed unsheltered. Homeless people are considered unsheltered if they are living on the street, in encampments, along creeks or in vehicles.
The proportion of unsheltered homeless people in Santa Clara County is one of the worst in the nation. Only 52 percent of homeless in San Francisco are considered unsheltered. Even in Los Angeles County, where the number of homeless people per capita is much higher, the percent of unsheltered homeless people is slightly lower than here in Santa Clara County.
The homeless population in some North County cities has significantly increased in recent years. In Mountain View, the number of homeless people increased from 139 in 2013 to 276 in 2015. This is the opposite of what's happening throughout the county overall, where homelessness decreased by 14 percent overall in the same time. Simitian said he believes the big uptick in Mountain View can be attributed to the loss of the Sunnyvale Armory.
But people entering the shelter Monday night pointed to the skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area as the reason they were stuck on the street. One woman said she lived in Philadelphia in 2009, where she rented a three-bedroom apartment for $550 a month. Tili, who declined to give her last name, said she traveled to the Bay Area in order to take care of her mother, who later died, and she quickly found that the cost of living was too much to handle.
"Economically, I just can't afford it," she said.
Since then, Tili said she's done what it takes to survive, living in Gilroy one day and Mountain View the next. Pointing to her cane, she said her tendonitis makes it tough to stay mobile. But traveling to shelters and staying mobile beats sleeping on a park bench, which she said can be risky.
"As a woman, you're risking your life being out in the elements," she said.
At one point she chose to sleep on the VTA's route 22 bus, which runs from San Jose to Palo Alto overnight and is often used referred to as a mobile homeless shelter. She said her experiences on the bus had been terrible -- she had been groped and sexually abused by other passengers, and the bus driver did little intervene.
After getting a referral through the Palo Alto Opportunity Center, Tili now has a bed secured at the new Sunnyvale shelter, and she said she's thankful for it.
Standing at the front of the facility with a big smile was Grace Hilliard, a volunteer at the shelter who said she struggled with homelessness for several years. Hilliard said she stayed at San Jose's largest homeless encampment, known as the Jungle, intermittently from its inception until city officials dismantled it late last year. For years, she had a job, she said, but any housing she could find didn't last long because of the high cost of living. At one point, she was collecting recyclable cans in order to pay for food and clothing.
Recently, Hilliard said she was fortunate enough to get a studio apartment in Sunnyvale at the former site of the armory. Now she spends her time helping homeless people, handing out blankets and food wherever it's needed. Standing inside the new shelter, she said that it's important to help out people struggling to find a home.
"In society, you've got to give back somewhere," she said. "And you're going to go where you've been."