More than a hundred homeless people in the northern end of Santa Clara County now have a warm, reliable place to sleep each night, after the Sunnyvale Cold Weather Shelter opened its doors for the first time Monday.
Sandwiched between Highway 101 and 237, and several tech offices, the shelter at 999 Hamlin Court is the only large shelter space in the county north of San Jose. The shelter effectively replaces the Sunnyvale Armory, which used to house around 125 homeless people each night during the cold winter months but closed in March 2014, dealing a significant blow to the county's already inadequate number of shelter beds.
But to homeless resident Annamae Thomas, parting ways with the Sunnyvale Armory for a brand new shelter didn't seem like a bad deal at all. Thomas recently had to leave her apartment in San Jose when her rent jumped to $2,200. She has been living in motels, on buses -- including the infamous "Hotel 22" VTA route that runs overnight from San Jose to Palo Alto -- and with her daughter before finding her way to the Hamlin Court shelter. About 25 years ago, she said she also found herself homeless and sleeping at the armory, which hardly had the same kind of amenities.
"Compared to (the armory), this is awesome. We've got laundry machines, brand new bathrooms," Thomas said. "We don't have to share the showers with the men."
Earlier this year, the Santa Clara County board of Supervisors set aside $3 million to build the cold weather shelter, which operates from late November through March, giving homeless residents a place to stay during inclement weather. The 125-bed shelter is a 6,500-square-foot facility that was carved out of a county-owned warehouse and broken down into sections for men, women and families seeking refuge from the cold. County Supervisor Joe Simitian has spearheaded the effort to create a permanent cold weather shelter to replace the armory, which he said is largely responsible for the large recent increase in homelessness in Mountain View.
Last year, the county hastily constructed a temporary homeless shelter on the edge of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, but efforts to retain a facility on the city-owned land fell flat earlier this year when the Sunnyvale City Council refused to allow it.
The new shelter is certainly an upgrade from the temporary one last year, said Stephanie Demos, the chief development officer for HomeFirst, which operates the shelter. She said this one has a bigger kitchen, warming stations, separate bathrooms and a row of washers and dryers running all day. They also have kennels available for pets, because homeless people would rather stay out in the cold than part ways with their pets, Demos said.
Although the shelter hadn't reached capacity in its first few days of operation, Demos predicts it will be packed soon enough.
"People are wary of a new place," Demos said. "But then the word spreads on the street, they tell each other it's a good and safe place to stay, and it starts filling up."
Larry Ferguson, who came to the shelter for his first night Tuesday, said he used to live at an RV park in Sunnyvale and got kicked out after falling behind on the rent. On top of that, he said he recently suffered from a seizure and lower back injury and spent time at both Kaiser and El Camino Hospital before heading directly to the shelter still wearing his hospital wristbands and IV bandage.
Ferguson, 65, said he's been relying on Social Security checks, and hopes to have an apartment of his own soon. He doesn't miss his trailer back at the Aloha RV park -- it was falling apart and damaged anyway, he said.
The shelter space is badly needed in Santa Clara County, where a staggering 71 percent of the county's 6,500 homeless residents are considered unsheltered -- meaning they are living on the street, in vehicles, encampments or along creeks. Although homelessness per capita is higher in counties like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the proportion of unsheltered homeless people is lower.
The problem is more acute in Mountain View, where 271 of the 276 homeless people surveyed in Mountain View last year were considered unsheltered, according to Santa Clara County's 2015 "Point in Time" homeless census.
The shelter space is particularly critical during the cold winter months, when homeless residents face big health risks by staying outside, Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, said in a statement last week.
"One of the key things we do to prevent illness and death is to operate the Cold Weather Shelter Program for the County of Santa Clara," Urton said in a statement. "Shelters save lives and give us a critical opportunity to engage with clients. For many people experiencing homelessness, a shelter stay is the first step on the path to a permanent home."