This the second installment in a multi-part series. In the first part, this news organization examines why, according to client testimony and county data, LifeMoves Mountain View is falling short of its promises.
Folded blankets sit atop an outstretched sleeping bag in an empty parking lot on Leghorn Street in Mountain View. It's late September, and John Swangler's belongings are neatly tucked in plastic bags shaded by bushes covered in pink blooms.
The parking lot's not the safest place: Swangler said he was robbed after setting up camp here, but he – like so many other people who are unhoused – stays because there's nowhere else for him to go.
For about three months, he lived nearby at LifeMoves Mountain View, a temporary shelter program, hopeful that it would be his springboard into real housing. When that didn't pan out, he said he slept in another LifeMoves Mountain View client's car. After she left the program and took her car with her, Swangler's only option was to go back to living on the street.
LifeMoves Mountain View, which opened in May 2021 and is operated by Menlo Park-based nonprofit LifeMoves, offers its clients shelter and support services to find permanent housing in 90 to 120 days. But an investigation by this news organization found that the program falls short of this goal more often than not. According to county data, only 26% of clients who exited the program between its opening and September 2022 were placed in stable housing.
The 100-unit program has a lower success rate than most of the similar shelters operating in Santa Clara County, according to the county data. Many of the 18 former and current clients interviewed for this series trace their challenges at LifeMoves Mountain View back to staffing problems, whether it was conflicts with specific employees, too few staffers to provide promised services, or a program that failed to help them find housing.
But underlying the challenges that LifeMoves faces in getting its residents housed is something that experts and advocates say no shelter or city can fix on its own: There's simply not enough affordable housing in the Bay Area for everyone who needs it.
Nowhere to go
Dr. Margot Kushel, director of UCSF's Benioff Housing and Homelessness Initiative, said that no matter how motivated a homeless person is, or how much support an interim housing shelter offers them, programs like LifeMoves Mountain View can't work if there's no affordable housing to place people into. Kushel said California is about 1 million units short for extremely low-income households (those making less than 30% of the area median income). There are only 23 units of housing for every 100 extremely low-income households, she said.
According to city officials, Mountain View has 1,710 affordable housing units for lower-income households. City officials said there are usually substantial waitlists for affordable housing developments in the city, which means that there are rarely vacancies.
The most recent Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy data, a special census tabulation used to determine how many households require rental assistance, indicates that nearly 11,000 households in Mountain View – approximately a third of all households in the city – are in need, officials added.
"The reality in California is we simply don't have the housing," Kushel said. "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."
Former Mountain View City Council member Sally Lieber, now a member of the State Board of Equalization, said LifeMoves leadership acknowledged the Bay Area's affordable housing shortage from the start. According to Lieber, during a November 2020 community meeting hosted by LifeMoves, its Vice President of Programs and Services Brian Greenberg said that case managers would work with clients to help them understand that they would need to relocate to the Central Valley if they wanted to get housed.
"It was really clear from the beginning of this project that one of the main objectives was to export our homelessness here in Mountain View to the Central Valley," Lieber said of the program.
Lieber also questioned the speed at which interim housing programs like LifeMoves Mountain View aim to get clients housed: just three to four months.
"I've been really uncomfortable with it being held up as a model for statewide action, because it's not a model for statewide action," Lieber said of the program. "There's no way that 90 or even 120 days of housing can stabilize people enough to somehow, miraculously, find housing – in our area, or even in the Central Valley, or anywhere in California."
LifeMoves CEO Aubrey Merriman did not agree to be interviewed for this story, despite more than a dozen requests made over three months. LifeMoves Director of Community Engagement & Public Affairs Ben Biscocho, who has since left the organization, denied that it has a goal to house people in the Central Valley.
The dearth of affordable housing isn't the only systemic issue that makes it hard for programs like LifeMoves to get its clients housed. Former residents said that case managers and other staff members frequently quit or changed jobs, sometimes leaving them without case management services for weeks, despite the program's promise to offer it weekly. Case managers work to connect clients with resources that will get them closer to achieving stability.
Former LifeMoves Mountain View case manager Grace, whose name was changed for this story, said her workload was often overwhelming, the facility was usually understaffed and that there was no director in place when the program first opened. Grace said she ended up leaving LifeMoves when a position outside the organization offered her higher pay.
A January 2022 CalMatters series on California's labor shortages found that high staff turnover and understaffing aren't just challenges for individual shelters, but major, systemic impediments to meeting the state's homelessness goals.
"If they don't leave homeless services completely, workers will switch jobs for $1 or $2 more an hour," the CalMatters report said, leading to constant turnover at shelters and leaving clients without case management support.
Kushel said an already challenging and underpaid job is made more frustrating when case managers, despite their best efforts and through no fault of their own, can't help their clients succeed.
"It's hard to face people, day after day, when you don't have anything to offer them," Kushel said. "They come in here; they've been promised that they're going to get housing; and you've got nothing to offer them. That's hard, grueling work."
Lieber said that whenever she and other Mountain View City Council members had the opportunity to ask questions about staffing and LifeMoves' bandwidth, "there are no answers" from its leadership.
Greenberg acknowledged in an interview that staffing is a challenge. He said his employees often face long commutes to work because they can't afford to live on the Peninsula.
Staffing issues don't just increase stress on employees – that strain trickles down to clients.
"What I've heard from the clientele and the advocacy community that I've talked to, are just that people are on a treadmill where they're forced to reapply for their housing (at LifeMoves) and there are no caseworkers to do their side of the work (to get the extension)," Lieber said.
LifeMoves requires residents who are there more than 90 days to fill out a brief extension form with their case manager on a biweekly basis to keep them on track with their housing goals, LifeMoves leadership said. However, multiple clients told reporters that they were never or rarely asked to fill out an extension form by their case managers.
"If there isn't even a caseworker to help you reapply for the temporary housing that you're in, then it suggests that there's little to no bandwidth for finding people actual housing," Lieber said.
Former client Caroline Mathangani said she had the option to ask for an extension when her time was up, but chose to leave the program without filing one.
"They were telling me, if you want to stay longer, you need to write us a letter and tell us why you need to stay here," Mathangani recalled. "And I'm like, is there any other reason besides being homeless and not having found somewhere to go?"
Those who did meet with a LifeMoves housing specialist regularly said it was helpful, but limited rental options still make finding housing an uphill battle.
Former client Carolyn and her children came to LifeMoves Mountain View in November 2021 to escape domestic violence. This news organization agreed not to publish Carolyn's last name.
She already had a stable job and a good credit score before starting the program. But Carolyn said she kept running into the same roadblock: She was disqualified from the single bedroom apartments that she could afford because she has more than two children.
California law generally permits up to two people to occupy each bedroom in a home, plus one person in the living space. So a one-bedroom unit can legally accommodate up to three people, while a two-bedroom can accommodate up to five.
With the guidance of her housing specialist, Carolyn said she sometimes looked at 20 apartments in one weekend. Her housing specialist eventually found her a place she could afford that was big enough for her and her kids, and Carolyn lives there today.
But Carolyn believes she would have found a place a lot faster if her family could have been considered for one-bedrooms. She'd like to see a change in state law to be less restrictive toward single parents with children.
"That would help a lot of people completely even avoid the shelter," she said.
Despite the many systemic barriers to solving homelessness, county data suggests that the city's homeless population is shrinking.
According to Santa Clara County's point-in-time count – a census of unhoused people in the county, which is conducted every other year – Mountain View's unsheltered homeless population dropped from 574 in 2019 to 206 in 2022. The count was not taken in 2021 due to COVID-19.
Some neighboring Peninsula communities also saw their homeless population drop, though not as drastically as Mountain View. Palo Alto's unsheltered individuals decreased by 12% between 2019 and 2022, and the city of Los Altos saw a 14% drop.
With LifeMoves Mountain View having opened in mid-2021, both city officials and LifeMoves leadership point to these numbers as evidence for the program's success in getting people off the streets and into housing.
However, experts say the data only tells one piece of the story. The county acknowledged in the report that the methods employed in a non-intrusive count, "while academically sound, have inherent biases and shortcomings."
"The point-in-time count is helpful in showing us trends over time. It's one piece of information that we use," said Kathryn Kaminski with the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing. "But it is, by itself, not something that we use to draw conclusions about what's happening in specific areas."
The report says that counting unsheltered individuals is something of a guessing game, particularly when trying to identify how many people sleep in vans, cars and RVs.
"We don't generally draw conclusions about specific cities from the (point-in-time) count alone," Kaminski said.
And while Mountain View's homeless count dropped, other communities in the county saw a huge increase. Gilroy's unsheltered population increased by 76% between 2019 and 2022, Milpitas' unsheltered count nearly doubled, and nearby Campbell's nearly tripled. The county's overall homeless population increased by 3%, suggesting that the region's homeless issue is not improving.
Neighboring counties saw even higher increases. According to San Mateo County's point-in-time count, Menlo Park's unsheltered homeless population more than doubled between 2019 and 2022, and Redwood City saw an 11% increase. The number of unhoused people in East Palo Alto increased by nearly 58%. Overall, San Mateo County's homeless population increased by more than 21%.
Kushel said that the biennial count offers valuable information about where a county's homeless population is at over time. But because it doesn't track individuals, it's hard to know if decreasing numbers in a specific city are caused by individuals getting housed or just by people leaving for another area.
"Communities can do things to push people away," Kushel said.
After Mountain View banned oversized vehicles from parking on the majority of city streets in 2019 and began enforcing those rules in 2022, Lieber speculated, some of Mountain View's homeless population may have relocated to areas that are more lax about RV street parking.
"I know that the vehicle-dwelling community all really got the message that they had to leave or they were going to be ticketed or towed," Lieber said. "So people kind of knew what their time frame was and left."
While people living in their vehicles are considered unsheltered and homeless by the point-in-time census, the count also tracks the number of unhoused individuals who stay at shelters. Kaminski explained it is a more precise data point than the unsheltered count, since the county is able to determine "exactly how many people were in each shelter on the night of the count," she said.
According to the data, the number of homeless people in shelters in Mountain View rose from 32 to 140 between 2019 and 2022.
When the 2019 point-in-time count was taken, Trinity United Methodist Church served as Mountain View's only homeless shelter, offering about 30 beds during the winter months to women, children and families. So when LifeMoves Mountain View opened in 2021, it represented a huge increase in the number of shelter beds, and the 2022 sheltered count saw a commensurate rise.
Mountain View city officials declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a written statement that it attributes the rise in sheltered individuals to LifeMoves Mountain View opening, which increased the city's shelter capacity.
A formula for success?
Dave Arnone, a local advocate who delivers meals weekly to unhoused residents, believes that's the best thing to have come out of LifeMoves Mountain View: more shelter beds. Many of the clients reporters spoke to said, despite the things they disliked about the program, they were grateful to have a roof over their heads and to no longer be sleeping on the street or in their small vehicles.
"The people for whom it's functioned at some level of shelter or permanent supportive housing, I think it's been great," Arnone said.
But LifeMoves isn't supposed to provide long-term shelter. Rather, the program is meant to provide temporary shelter and supportive services "designed to return people to stability," according to LifeMoves website. That's where Kushel said that programs like LifeMoves need "to reframe what the problem is."
"People are not homeless because they need services," Kushel said. "People are homeless because there isn't any housing."
It's not that people don't benefit from things like case management or job training, she added, but a lack of services is not the root of the problem. While interim shelters like LifeMoves "can be a very important part of a system response," Kushel said her research suggests that putting people directly into permanent supportive housing is the most effective solution.
"We might need it as a system, to bridge people," Kushel said of interim housing models. "But we have lots and lots of evidence that people can be taken directly from their car, from a tent in an encampment, from a shelter, whatever, to housing."
Kushel pointed to a 2020 study she conducted in which a randomized set of chronically homeless people were offered access to permanent supportive housing, which the study defined as "subsidized housing with closely linked, voluntary supportive services," like case management, physical and mental health services, and substance use treatment. The research found that it only took two and a half months on average to get the participants into the permanent supportive housing they were offered. By the end of the study, which spanned from 2015 to 2019, 86% of them remained housed.
The study concluded that directly offering high-risk individuals permanent supportive housing reduces the need for emergency psychiatric services and shelter use.
Arnone believes the LifeMoves site would be more effective if it were converted into a permanent supportive housing site: a place where people can stay as long as they need – without assigned chores, or room checks, or the threat of a time limit, as is the case at LifeMoves Mountain View. And most importantly, a place where they can build community.
"People don't need staff and services," he said. "They need friends."
Arnone pointed to Mountain View's plans to turn the Crestview Hotel on El Camino Real near Sunnyvale into 48 affordable housing units with supportive services as a perfect example of this type of solution. The project received $26.9 million in county and city funding, as well as a $16.7 million Homekey grant to support the purchase and conversion of the property. By contrast, LifeMoves Mountain View cost $25 million to build – a figure that includes land acquisition and construction. The project was the recipient of a $14.4 million Homekey grant.
Similar to the Crestview model, the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto includes 88 permanent supportive housing units run by Abode Services, a nonprofit devoted to helping people secure stable housing.
When asked to respond to this news organization's investigation of LifeMoves Mountain View, which found that the program places its clients into permanent housing at a lower rate compared with other interim shelter programs in the county, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said that measuring a program's success isn't black and white. It "depends on what your definition of 'working' is," he said.
"When the temperatures drop down in the 30s and it's pouring rain, giving somebody a place that is safe, warm and dry – I consider that 'working,'" he said.
Mountain View City Council member Lucas Ramirez took a similar stance. While Ramirez said he was discouraged to hear that many of the clients interviewed by this news organization didn't receive support that led to permanent housing while at LifeMoves, he still believes the program may have benefitted them by offering stability.
"Did they feel the stability of living there in that time, and did that enable them to have maybe greater ability and latitude to look for permanent housing on their own?" Ramirez said.
Simitian acknowledged that the shortage of affordable housing in the Bay Area makes it challenging for programs like LifeMoves to succeed.
"Telling folks, 'You've got to find a permanent housing solution,' when it just isn't there – that isn't a formula for success," he said.
But he still believes that interim programs like LifeMoves need to exist. Interim housing and other temporary solutions, he said, are important because they give people a place to go until more affordable housing gets built.
"So you're going to have to keep pushing on the permanent supply side, even as you are creating the interim housing," he said. "It's not an either-or; it has to be both."
Searching for a solution
The state has already committed a little over $78 million in state Homekey funding to LifeMoves and the cities of Palo Alto and San Jose to build sites modeled after the Mountain View program. Homekey grants local public agencies funding to purchase hotels, motels and other properties to house people experiencing homelessness.
LifeMoves leadership said in 2021 that the long term goal is to have 10 interim shelter sites across the Bay Area. In direct response to LifeMoves' ambitions, Santa Clara County approved up to $40 million in September 2021 to be used for these types of projects.
There's also large pots of money set aside for building permanent, affordable housing in the county, such as Measure A, a $950 million Santa Clara County affordable housing bond measure passed by voters in 2016. Since the passage of the bond, 47 developments with 4,363 new units and 689 renovated apartments have been approved by the Board of Supervisors, according to the county.
Mountain View is taking advantage of the bond measure. The city entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the county in 2022 to advance the development of affordable housing in the city.
Three Mountain View projects have already received funding through Measure A (1100 La Avenida St., Lot 12 on Bryant Street, and The Crestview on E. El Camino Real); two are anticipated to receive an allocation under the MOU with the county (1265 Montecito Ave. and 1020 Terra Bella Ave.); and two projects are expected to go before the county Board of Supervisors for Measure A funding consideration later this year (96 W. El Camino Real and 1012 Linda Vista Ave.).
Simitian was a strong supporter of Measure A, and said he believes it's producing "real results." But he said those results aren't happening as fast as he would like.
"Is it keeping pace with the extent of the demand? I don't think so," Simitian said.
There are other creative ideas on the horizon to build more of the affordable units that the state so desperately needs. One is “opportunity homes,” a concept that State Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park) wants to accelerate through a piece of legislation he recently introduced.
Opportunity homes are relocatable housing units that can be quickly built on vacant land. The key difference between this model and an interim shelter program is that opportunity homes are only as temporary as their residents want them to be: There’s no time limit for people living in opportunity homes. So while folks living in shelters are still considered homeless, a person living in an opportunity unit would be considered housed.
The idea is that someone could live in one of these units for years – rather than the three to four months typically offered by interim shelter programs – offering residents increased stability while more permanent, affordable housing gets built, Becker said.
“Why couldn’t someone stay longer in one of these units if they wanted to? That’s part of one of the focuses of this bill,” Becker said in an interview. “That people could stay longer until they either get a placement into permanent housing, or … that possibility is there that people could pay a small amount of rent to stay there.”
With the price of housing outpacing local wages, Kushel said the number of households experiencing homelessness is only going to keep increasing. Meanwhile, the demand for affordable housing already well exceeds the Bay Area housing stock, she said.
"We have such a housing shortage that we can guarantee that new people are falling into homelessness every day," she said. "If you're not actually moving anyone out of homelessness, people are just going to pile up and you're going to fill up the shelters really fast, and then you'll be back where you started."
Kushel understands the excitement around interim shelter programs, with their supportive services and ambitious goals to get people housed in three months. But when she hears about these endeavors, she said her first thought is, "Gosh, they're going to be disappointed."
"We pretend that people who have experienced homelessness have some deficit, like there's something wrong with them, and if only we fix them, we can solve this problem," Kushel said. "But that's not what the problem is. The problem is that there's no housing."