Mountain View's new seasonal homeless shelter closed its doors last month after offering a warm, safe place to sleep for single women and families with children during the winter.
And while a handful of people and families successfully found permanent housing during their stay at the Trinity United Methodist Church shelter, located on the corner of Hope and Mercy streets, new data shows that nearly two-thirds left with nowhere to go -- transferring either to another homeless shelter or hitting the streets.
The downtown church shelter opened its doors just before Christmas, after Santa Clara County officials, church leaders and the shelter agency HomeFirst partnered up to provide a cold-weather shelter for homeless residents. Shelter space throughout the county is in demand, particularly in the North County, where homelessness is on the rise and emergency shelter beds are in short supply.
Mountain View's homeless population has increased three-fold from 136 people in 2013 to 416 in 2017, according to county census data. The county's overall homeless count hasn't changed much over the same period -- from 7,631 to 7,394 -- but saw a roughly 12 percent dip in 2015 while Mountain View's homeless population continued to climb. County officials, through initiatives spearheaded by county Supervisor Joe Simitian, have since opened a year-round Sunnyvale homeless shelter.
The Trinity church shelter operated on a referral basis, admitting only homeless single women and families with children. The shelter served 87 people -- 16 of them children -- over the nearly four-month period it was open, according to data provided by HomeFirst. But the cold weather shelter closed its doors on April 15, and a reported 64 percent of the homeless were either bounced into another emergency shelter or had nowhere to go but the street.
"When the cold weather season is over, people go back out to the streets," said HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton.
Other shelters, like the Sunnyvale County Winter Shelter, used to have the same constraints -- open for about six months during the rainy season -- but county officials voted to keep the site permanently open. Similar funding was not made available for the first year of Mountain View's shelter.
"The whole point of the cold weather shelter is to provide shelter during the coldest part of the year," Urton said. "We're funded 'til April 15 and then we have to close our doors."
Data from HomeFirst shows that families and women stayed an average of 54 days in the Mountain View shelter between late December and April. About 38 percent had physical disabilities; 31 percent were survivors of domestic violence; and just under 30 percent had a chronic health condition. More than 25 percent of the people who stayed in the shelter were dealing with a mental illness.
Despite the dearth of shelter space in the county, Trinity's shelter struggled to reach its 50-bed capacity on most nights, Urton said. She said HomeFirst is still investigating why beds went unused during the winter months, but it could be because the shelter doubled as a church space and everyone had to be cleared out by 7 a.m., which is not an easy ask for a family with children. The Sunnyvale shelter had no such requirement, so many opted to stay there instead.
"We need to look at the numbers, spend more time and understand why it wasn't at capacity," Urton said. "We need to be good stewards of the dollars that we're given -- that's our responsibility to the community -- and maybe the shelter should be for 25 to 30 people. Maybe that's what the need was."
Data from the county's Office of Supportive Housing, provided by Simitian's office, shows that a total of 247 people were referred to the shelter in total, but the "average use rate" of the 50 shelter beds was about 80 percent, which was dragged down by a slow start in December followed by about a 50 percent vacancy rate in April.
Simitian told the Voice that getting an emergency shelter up and running takes time, and it's expected that beds may go empty until the church is better known as a resource for homeless residents in the area. Still, he said, an 80 percent use rate to him feels like a "resounding success," and he stands by the choice of making the shelter a resource specifically for families and women under-served by the shelter system.
"Some of these (homeless) kids have no place to do homework but for this shelter," Simitian said. "Now they've got a place that's safe, sane and quiet where they can do homework, and live something that more closely resembles a normal life."
As county officials weigh the idea of contracting the size of the Mountain View shelter, the Sunnyvale shelter remains at capacity and could really use some extra space. Urton said HomeFirst and the county have been considering plans to expand the shelter for about a year. An addition could also come with some badly needed upgrades to the windows and insulation, she said, which was converted from a county-owned warehouse in 2016.
Piloting a homeless shelter exclusively for women and families with kids was a bold move by the church, the county and everyone involved, said Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos. Homeless shelters don't always feel like a safe environment for women and children, he said, and the Trinity United Methodist Church shelter gave them an alternative. This is particularly true for transgender homeless residents, he said, and the church shelter supported several trans women searching for a safe place to sleep.
"It was a wonderful, bold step by Supervisor Simitian and Trinity United Methodist Church to try this in its first year, and hats off to everybody involved for trying to make this a success," he said.