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Nonprofits scramble to help Santa Clara County homeless during coronavirus shutdown

Showers, bathrooms hard to come by, shelters race to expand and still comply with social distancing

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A client enters a shower on the Dignity on Wheels mobile laundry and shower trailer outside Community Services Agency in Mountain View on March 24. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

California's governor has ordered all residents to stay home. But for the growing homeless population in Santa Clara County, it's getting harder -- not easier -- to find a place to stay.

The order, which closed nonessential businesses, has also made it more difficult for those living in vehicles or on the street to stay clean. Amber Stime, the director of the nonprofit Move MV, said her office has received a spike in calls from unhoused residents saying many of the resources they've come to rely on have shut down. Bathroom facilities at public parks and showers at places like the YMCA were crucial for hygiene, but they have all abruptly shuttered.

"It was surprising and shocking for the vehicle dwellers," Stime said. "Especially for people in cars -- RV users have at least some access to toiletries."

Move MV, which runs Mountain View's safe parking program, currently has several RVs, oversized vans and cars parked in the former VTA lot on Evelyn Avenue. The vehicles were relocated from the Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lots pending a deal with Santa Clara County to provide all-hours parking for people living out of their vehicles.

For safe parking participants and callers alike, Stime said Friday she was referring them to portable restrooms and hand washing stations at Rengstorff Park, where the permanent bathroom facilities were shuttered in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The region's homeless population has grown fast in recent years, with the latest count showing there were 9,706 in Santa Clara County as of 2019. Since 2017, in just two years, Mountain View's homeless population jumped by 46% to 606 people, hundreds of whom have sought shelter by living in cars and RVs. Unhoused residents are more likely to get sick and be in poorer health, with nearly one in four reporting a chronic health problem.

Though the homeless are among the most vulnerable to the cornavirus outbreak, practicing good hygiene is going to be a challenge if public restrooms are all shut down, said Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency (CSA). When the mobile shower program Dignity on Wheels came to CSA's headquarters on Tuesday last week, Myers said it was packed with people waiting to shower because they can no longer get one anywhere else.

"I see hygiene issues for homeless as a health care crisis," he said.

Another shower program that was offered on Thursdays at Trinity United Methodist Church has been suspended due to the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, while Dignity on Wheels is too oversubscribed to make more frequent trips to Mountain View. Myers said he would urge the city of Mountain View to add more portable restrooms in strategic spots throughout the city.

As of Saturday, March 21, the city added hand-washing stations in and around the Civic Center plaza and a portable bathroom at Eagle Park. More information on the city's efforts can be found here.

Shelters shift gears, operate 24/7

County public health officials, in announcing the stay-at-home order, acknowledged that homeless residents will have trouble taking preventative actions to stay healthy, and encouraged homeless shelters to make space available "as soon as possible and to the maximum extent practicable."

Despite the advice, local shelters have instead had to hit 'pause' before accepting a surge of new people to prevent outbreaks. The nonprofit HomeFirst, which operates shelters in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, announced last week a temporary freeze on any new clients pending a host of changes that can accommodate safe social distancing.

It's been difficult making adjustments on the fly while demand is through the roof. HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton told the Voice that requests for shelter placement are streaming in, but the goal right now is actually a bed reduction, to make sure there is more space in between each person. The nonprofit's shelters are now open 24 hours day rather than the typical overnight hours, giving the homeless a safe place to stay throughout the day.

Urton said the last few weeks have been frantic for the nonprofit, which had to double its staffing on short notice in order to operate all-day sites, while simultaneously dropping its entire volunteer workforce as a safety precaution. New cleaning protocols are in place, and Urton said she recently purchased nearly $20,000 in UV sanitizing lights and $30,000 in masks -- none of which was originally budgeted for this year.

"We're doing everything we can to control the situation," Urton said.

With a lot more time to spend in the shelters, Urton said clients are reading books, playing games and using the available computers, but often they simply choose to sleep in their bunks. Everyone is regularly checked for a fever and other symptoms, and anyone who is ill is immediately placed in an isolation room. From there, Urton said HomeFirst staff finds them a motel room, packs up a care package of medical supplies and enough food to last seven days, puts them in a taxi and sends them on their way.

Placing sick shelter clients in motels has happened many times over the last few weeks, Urton said, with limited pushback from the motel owners.

Though shelter capacity is tight, that's expected to change soon. Urton said the county is moving quickly to open three new emergency shelter facilities in San Jose, with a goal of housing more than 200 additional homeless residents

"They are literally doing construction on these facilities as we speak," she said. "I have never seen our local government move so efficiently."

Starting last week, HomeFirst announced it will no longer accept in-kind donations like clothing, hygiene products and household goods until further notice, citing health concerns. Instead, Urton encouraged anyone interested in helping HomeFirst to donate cash, which can help with some of the sudden large costs for supplies like masks.

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Comments

8 people like this
Posted by Billy Bob
a resident of Bailey Park
on Mar 23, 2020 at 6:25 pm

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]


2 people like this
Posted by Polomom
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 24, 2020 at 11:41 am

Web Link This should at least help with immediate expenses.


7 people like this
Posted by Kris
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 24, 2020 at 2:17 pm

I'd still like the Voice to post a stat that of the 606 homeless people of MV, how many became homeless immediately after having a home in MV.


6 people like this
Posted by longtime resident
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 24, 2020 at 3:59 pm

Now that Google has closed its buildings and employees are working from home, perhaps the company could allocate one building as a place to help homeless in need? People who have a van or an RV they can live in could park in the Google parking lot. Inside the building they have laundry rooms and restrooms, maybe a gym and locker room, right? Allow people to access this space to take showers, wash their clothes, and Google can afford to routinely clean the building throughout the day.


4 people like this
Posted by E.S.
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 24, 2020 at 4:19 pm

Since exercise facilities, like the YMCAs have large gym floor spaces as well as bathrooms, I wonder whether they might they be able to house homeless people and provide bathroom services to those living in vehicles.


2 people like this
Posted by Polomom
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 25, 2020 at 10:13 am

@E.S. I read that on Monday our YMCA became the childcare center for the healthcare professionals working at El Camino Hospital. So that option is already taken. Looking at the governors orders, communities are supposed to house homeless people in hotels. I have not heard anything along those lines in MV. But we are offering parking lots to our vehicle dwellers, where they are connected to CSA and other services.


3 people like this
Posted by Lenny Siegel
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 25, 2020 at 12:06 pm

In normal times, Mountain View residents are divided about what to do about the growing number of vehicle households on our streets. But these are not normal times. We are undergoing a public health emergency, yet vehicle residents and homeless now have less access to sanitation and other services than they do in normal times.
This lack of services not only poses a health risk to the “unstably housed” and homeless, it is a threat to the health of our entire community, as vehicle residents and homeless could join other segments of our population as vectors for COVID-19.

Mountain View city staff, non-profits, and Santa Clara County, are working hard to enhance those services, but more needs to be done, and quickly. Ideally this would be done in cooperation with neighboring cities, the private sector, and foundations such as the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The federal, state, county, and local emergency declarations should make the following actions more feasible than in normal times. The financial and human cost of prevention is much less than the cost of treating the sick.

For starters, I propose extending the hours (to 24/7), increasing the number of spaces, and enhancing the services at Mountain View new “Safe Parking” lots. A port-a-potty is not enough. I also suggest relaxing the requirements for admission.

Second, as in other cities, we should work with hotel owners to provide rooms for the homeless as well as those residents who have no other place to self-isolate.

Third, we should make closed-school facilities available for vehicle households. Schools have empty parking lots, plumbing, electricity, and custodians. Furthermore, schools are distributed throughout the community.
We have the resources to address this challenge. Do we have the will?


2 people like this
Posted by Polomom
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 25, 2020 at 1:18 pm

The City has acted 10 days ago, replacing closed park restrooms with portable facilities. According to the city website there is capacity at the city provided lots. The vehicle dwellers have to be willing, too. Supplying them with food in their current spots is not really helping social services. How are we ever re-integrating these residents into our current housing stock, if we do not ask them to join our MV social service network?
We should have a reduction in the actual RVs, since companies are closed and some of these workers hopefully went home to their real residences.
The only people who I have not seen addressed in any MV actions are the homeless people. But there are plans for shelters, lets hope these are put in place fast.
On Monday the City of San Jose was awarded $3.9 million, Santa Clara County won another $1.7 million and San Jose, city of Santa Clara and Santa Clara County group won $1.9 million. Our city leadership will hopefully be involved in spending some of the sums on our creek residents!


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