To help the fast-growing number of homeless people in Mountain View seeking a safe place to sleep at night, Trinity United Methodist Church is proposing to use its church property in Old Mountain View to house 50 homeless families and children during the cold winter months.
Plans for the shelter, which were submitted to the city last month, call for using the sanctuary space in the church to give the homeless -- specifically families with children and single women -- a warm place to sleep from late November through March. Similar to the cold-weather shelter in Sunnyvale, the proposed shelter would be operated by the nonprofit agency HomeFirst, and would accept people on a referral-only basis.
The church, located on the corner of Hope and Mercy streets near downtown Mountain View, has been an invaluable resource for the homeless for years. The nonprofit Hope's Corner has been providing free breakfasts and packaged lunches to the needy at the location since 2011, and has since expanded its services to include showers and haircuts. In recent years, the nonprofit has seen its visitor count skyrocket to between 180 and 200 people each week.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian told the Voice he suggested the idea of using space in the church as a cold weather homeless shelter to Pastor Michael Love at Trinity United Methodist Church back in January. He envisioned a strong, multi-agency partnership where Hope's Corner would provide food services, HomeFirst would run the shelter and Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos would provide case management, all in one location.
"It has long been my view that you can get a lot done if everybody will do their part," Simitian said. "Hope's Corner has really created something extraordinary around the meal service, Pastor Love has a congregation that is very sympathetic and supportive of the larger social and community service function, and CSA is an indigenous Mountain View nonprofit."
Love said the partnership proposed by Simitian is an ambitious one, but his gut reaction was that the church could pull it off. He went back to his congregation and found broad support to step up and serve the community -- particularly when the need for homeless services is so strong in the North County.
"I know my church pretty well and I suspected what I found, which was open hearts and a willingness and enthusiasm for this," he said.
The sanctuary space within the church is flexible enough to accommodate dozens of shelter beds because of a recent decision to ditch the wooden pews in favor of folding chairs, which allowed Hope's Corner to use the church to feed hundreds of people on busy Saturdays. Before that, the nonprofit had to operate out of a small social hall adjacent to the church, which was bursting at the seams as the number of needy residents showing up for a meal skyrocketed over the last four years.
CSA Executive Director Tom Myers said his agency is emphatically supportive of the cold-weather shelter plans, and that the people sleeping at the church would have access to all of CSA's services, including food, transportation, case management, backpacks full of supplies and even housing assistance. If CSA can't provide all the services on-site, he said, the people staying at Trinity United Methodist Church can travel less than a mile to get to CSA's headquarters on Stierlin Road.
"CSA will be more than happy to help out in any way that we can," Myers said. "We feel like the need for shelter space is incredibly important, and there's not enough of it around."
Expanding homeless services in the North County has been a major priority for Simitian since the closure of the Sunnyvale Armory in early 2014, which left a huge unmet need for shelter space in cities north of San Jose. The county finally made some headway last year when it converted a warehouse into a cold weather shelter in Sunnyvale about a mile from the Mountain View border.
During the search for a new homeless shelter site, the city of Mountain View has seen its homeless population rapidly climb from 139 in 2013 to 416 in 2017, according to county survey data, and it's abundantly clear that the Sunnyvale shelter does not have enough space to keep up with demand. Of the families that apply for a spot in the shelter, half are turned away because of space constraints, Simitian said.
But there are some key differences between the Sunnyvale shelter -- located between two highways and bordered by businesses -- and Trinity United Methodist Church, which is on the edge of downtown Mountain View and surrounded by single-family homes in the Old Mountain View neighborhood. The county faced fierce opposition from Sunnyvale residents in 2015 when it proposed building a 100-person shelter at Central Expressway and Fair Oaks Avenue, due largely to its close proximity to a quiet residential neighborhood directly to the south.
In order to solicit feedback and address the concerns of nearby residents in Mountain View, the county has held six community meetings this year, and sent out hundreds letters to residents in the area. Simitian said he also sent out his office staff to go door-to-door and communicate with neighbors about the proposed shelter plans. So far the response has been "very supportive," he said, and the questions and concerns that have been raised so far are legitimate and ought to be addressed.
One of the main things residents should keep in mind, Simitian said, is that the shelter space will be available specifically to homeless families with children and single women, and will be filled on a referral-only basis. The problem with the Sunnyvale Armory is that it let people in on a first-come first-serve basis, which left many homeless people milling around the area once the shelter ran out of space. Data from the Sunnyvale shelter in 2015 shows that despite referral-only access, the shelter averaged 95 percent capacity over 116 days, and was typically packed after the first few weeks of winter.
The shelter will also include on-site security, and county staff are working with local businesses to develop a plan to mitigate any increases in parking, according to a recent Q&A released by Simitian's office.
Hope's Corner board president Leslie Carmichael said she attended one of the community meetings and said the 20 or so residents who showed up had very good questions about how the homeless shelter would operate, and left the meeting feeling pretty encouraged. She said Old Mountain View residents have been largely supportive of Hope's Corner and its mission to serve food to the homeless and the needy on Saturdays, and that she believes the neighborhood's warm welcome will extend to the families seeking a place to sleep at night as well.
"We were fortunate right from the beginning with Hope's Corner," she said. "The opposition never really materialized."
County picks up the cost
At a board meeting Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to help out with the cost of establishing a homeless shelter at Trinity United Methodist Church, including much-needed upgrades to the kitchen at Hope's Corner. Currently, meals have to be prepared, cooked and transported off-site in Los Altos and sent over to Mountain View because the kitchen has no stove and lacks a commercial-grade oven.
Cost estimates show the kitchen facilities upgrades -- which would practically double the size of the existing kitchen -- amount to $982,000 and the shelter facility would cost $138,000, according to a county staff report.
County supervisors agreed on a 4-0 vote at the Aug. 15 meeting to contribute $500,000 in the form of a forgivable loan, as well as a second $200,000 "bridge loan," since Hope's Corner is currently waiting to receive funds from a community benefit agreement between the city and Clyde Avenue Joint Ventures LLC. The developer isn't expected to complete the projects at 580 and 620 Clyde Avenue for three years, which is locking up the $200,000 in community benefit funds, according to a county report.
Simitian sees the kitchen upgrades as a big opportunity. With 50 homeless people sleeping in the adjacent building to the kitchen at Hope's Corner, why not use it as an opportunity to provide job training? He suggested that the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team could provide culinary job training on-site, which could go a long way towards dealing with all the "help wanted" signs in downtown Mountain View.
"You're like two blocks away from restaurant row, not just up and down Castro Street but the side streets as well," he said. "All these folks are constantly talking about their failure to hire entry-level folks, and these are jobs that we could very well train people to do -- particularly when we're talking about a brand-new kitchen."
Trinity United Methodist Church submitted its proposal for a cold-weather homeless shelter in July, and has gone through initial review by the city's Community Development Department, according to Kimberly Thomas, the assistant to the city manager. The proposal is expected to be reviewed by the city's zoning administrator, who will grant or deny the provisional use permit. The goal is to have the shelter open by the start of this year's cold weather season -- officially, the first Monday after Thanksgiving.
Although the city of Mountain View isn't on the list of partner agencies for the shelter, Love said city staff has been a huge help in putting together the cold weather shelter proposal.
"It's really been a quiet sponsorship," he said. "The city isn't funding it, but we're sure feeling the good will of their care."
Hope's Corner's capital campaign is still ongoing. Anyone interested in learning more or making a donation may go to hopes-corner.org.