Two Santa Clara County supervisors are looking to pour $25 million into creating an ambitious network of homeless housing complexes across the county, with hopes of constructing up to 10 projects that could get people off the street and drastically reduce the region's growing homelessness population.
Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee announced the proposal Thursday at LifeMoves Mountain View, an interim housing facility that they hope to replicate 10 times over. The project was built in a matter of months and at a fraction of the cost of a homeless shelter.
Lee called it one of the quickest and best tools in the fight against homelessness, using modular construction -- including repurposed shipping containers -- in order to stand up 100 interim housing units in a matter of months. Unlike homeless shelters, it provides an extra layer of privacy in giving residents their own personal unit, which is a game-changer for many of the temporary residents.
"It has a door that locks, they have windows, and they provide privacy and safety that so many of our unhoused lack while sleeping in tents, living in the streets, under overpasses or by the creeks," Lee said.
LifeMoves Mountain View opened in May this year to considerable fanfare, with Gov. Gavin Newsom praising it as a template for others cities and counties seeking creative ways to house the homeless, even if just temporarily. Santa Clara County has seen its homeless count jump from 7,394 in 2017 to 9,706 in 2019, the large majority of whom are considered unsheltered.
Though traditionally, permanent supportive housing is still seen as the best option, it takes years of work to get a project approved and far more to get it constructed, and all at a much higher cost. LifeMoves Mountain View, by contrast, took advantage of streamlined approval and Lego-style modular buildings that could be fabricated, shipped in and installed in short order. The total cost of the project landed around $25 million.
Even as the doors were opening at the 100-unit facility in May, LifeMoves' leadership was already making big plans for expansion. Aubrey Merriman, the nonprofit's CEO, said his intent from the start was to use the modular housing complex as an example for other cities to follow. The blueprints for duplicating the project spell out what it would take for other Bay Area municipalities to step up.
Merriman said it will take a total of $250 million to make it happen, likely relying on serious contributions from private donors and Silicon Valley's corporate powerhouses. It will also take political willpower, and would require local politicians to volunteer to make homeless housing a priority in their own community.
Thursday marked the first potential commitment to the funding challenge, with Simitian and Lee proposing that $25 million in county funds be put toward the effort -- likely using federal stimulus money under the American Rescue Plan Act. Simitian said that past solutions to the homelessness crisis have been inadequate and feel akin to running in place, and that a $25 million start to funding a network of housing sites could hopefully spur more action.
"That's really what I see this effort as being. I hope that it will be a catalyst to incentivize others to step up," Simitian said.
Members of the Palo Alto, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale city councils were all present at the Thursday announcement at LifeMoves. Sunnyvale Councilwoman Alysa Cisneros said that it's going to take courage to take on the "monolithic challenge" of the housing crisis, and that interim housing is needed as a backstop for those who are just one month's rent away from being homeless.
"These individuals need a safety net for when the worst happens, and this is one of those safety nets," she said.
As of last month, LifeMoves Mountain View has been packed at near-full capacity with people who were homeless, all of whom have some connection to Mountain View. More than 60% of those staying in the housing complex previously lived in vehicles on the city's streets, which has become a controversial issue in recent years.
Among those people is Diane Jones, who has been at LifeMoves Mountain View for more than three months after previously living in a van. She said she fell into homelessness years ago and that she and her adult son have struggled to find a stable place to live since then. Homeless shelters were unpleasant and felt unsafe, she said, and it's been nice to finally have a place all to herself.
Jones said the case workers at LifeMoves were able to help her get a job and finally have an income to qualify for housing, and that she has since landed a spot in the Luna Vista apartments in Mountain View. She already signed the paperwork and expects to move out of LifeMoves in less than a month, opening up a spot for someone new to take her place.
The full Board of Supervisors will vote on the $25 million funding proposal at the Sept. 28 board meeting.