While investigating LifeMoves Mountain View, an interim homeless shelter program, reporters found that the program often falls short of its promises. But there are also major hurdles that make it difficult for any interim shelter model to succeed.
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Data shows the program falls short
Santa Clara County data suggests that LifeMoves Mountain View is not living up to the expectations heralded at its opening. Data shows it places its clients in permanent housing at a significantly lower rate than other interim shelter programs in the county, ranking close to the bottom.
"There's no way that 90 or even 120 days of housing can stabilize people enough to somehow, miraculously, find housing,” given the lack of low income housing available in the Bay Area and California, said former Mountain View City Council member Sally Lieber.
LifeMoves Mountain View struggles with management and staffing
Both clients and former staff say that LifeMoves Mountain View started accepting residents before a program director was in place. In its first year and a half of operation, the site has shuffled through at least three program directors.
One of those directors left his job after allegedly pushing a client. A former resident who said she experienced repeated sexual harassment during her stay at LifeMoves, and left because the program director at the time refused to evict her harrassers, despite a written policy prohibiting such behavior.
Most of the clients interviewed said they never received specialized help to find housing, despite the LiveMoves Mountain View's promise to provide it. A former employee said the program was chronically understaffed when she worked there.
One size doesn’t fit all
The LifeMoves Mountain View program is unique in that it serves a wide variety of people: families escaping domestic violence, seniors living on fixed incomes, single parents with teenage children and more. But current and former clients interviewed said this approach creates problems.
There are a myriad of rules intended to keep everyone safe, from a nightly curfew to providing only plastic utensils for meals. Clients are assigned chores, including cleaning communal bathrooms frequently described as filthy, need permission to be away overnight and aren’t allowed visits from family or friends at the site. Those interviewed said they chafed under the restrictions and come to resent the loss of independence.
"The way the rules are set up, I would characterize my being here less as a client and more of an inmate," said a current resident.
The homeless population is hard to count
Throughout this investigation, LifeMoves leadership, elected officials and the city of Mountain View pointed to Santa Clara County’s point-in-time count as evidence that the interim shelter model is working. According to the count, Mountain View's unsheltered homeless population dropped from 574 in 2019 to 206 in 2022.
But experts say that point-in-time count data can be misleading. They said that Mountain View’s reduction in unhoused people could be attributed to a number of factors, including people who are still unsheltered but have moved on to other cities. Overall, the county’s homeless population increased by 3%, suggesting that the region’s homelessness crisis isn’t improving.
There’s not enough affordable housing to make it work
Even if an interim shelter program does everything right, a housing-first model can only be successful if there’s affordable housing for people to move into. And according to experts, the overwhelming demand far exceeds the available low-income housing units.
"The reality in California is we simply don't have the housing," said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of UCSF's Benioff Housing and Homelessness Initiative. "So organizations can be amazing. They can do everything that they're trying to do. And if there's no place to discharge people, there's no place to discharge people. If there's no housing, there's no housing."