On a midweek morning at Tully Ballfield, people scramble up from the creek banks, pull up in ramshackle vans and bicycles for a meal and clothing giveaway. Well over 100 of them line up for the potluck cooked by local church folk while others rifle through trash bags stuffed with secondhand garments.
Deb Kramer, who leads a regional creek cleanup coalition, shakes her head disapprovingly. “Watch,” she says, arms folded across her chest. “A lot of this will end up in the trash or the water.”
She approaches the volunteers dishing out pasta, honeyed ham and fresh-cut fruit to ask why they don’t feed the homeless on church property. Their hard work goes to waste, she tells them, and her picker-uppers have to tidy up after them. Literally tons of edible food and wearable clothes are left to rot, she says, and those Styrofoam plates break into millions of water-polluting pieces.
Phil Mastrocola, head of homeless outreach for Grace Baptist Church, walks up to intervene. “As long as they’re hungry, we’ll feed them,” he says firmly. “We’re going to use city property because it’s public, it’s ours, it’s theirs, that’s what city property is for.”
“I understand that, but it’s making a mess down there,” Kramer says. “Can you at least bring people in to clean up after?”
“Well, where’s the city in all this?” Mastrocola wonders aloud, raising his voice and his hands. “Why doesn’t the city put in more trash cans or port-a-potties? Where are they? Don’t put it on all on the churches.”
“The problem is that it backs up to you and us,” she replies in exasperation.
“You just made my point,” Mastrocola says. He later apologizes for the impassioned exchange. “We’re on the same side,” he tells Kramer as she heads toward the water bank to survey the damage.
“I grew up here and I love this creek,” Kramer says once they part ways. “I get frustrated, too, about the incongruity of my passion for the environment and my passion for helping the homeless.”
By the creek, donated coats and bright-colored shirts hang limply over fallen oak trunks. Donated tents stand by rusty bikes, scavenged copper-stripped conduits, ripped plastic bags full of canned soup and bagged breads.
“Look,” Kramer says, pausing to point at one of several uneaten food heaps. “That’s what they’re serving up there. So much of it goes to waste.”
A shift in public perception and political will has led to an unprecedented effort to house the homeless in Santa Clara County. After decades of relying on a patchwork of services that treated the symptoms, local governments decided to fix what caused Silicon Valley’s homeless population to become the fifth-largest in the nation.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors formed a task force dedicated to finding shelter for the 7,500 people living on the region’s streets, creeks, cars and camps on a given night. Coming together, however, has sparked tension among public agencies, the nonprofits they fund and volunteers on the ground. Not everyone agrees on how best to help the destitute, or how to align grassroots charity with broader institutional efforts. A lack of communication between government entities and independent outreach groups has led to disputes over strategy—growing pains for a young alliance.
Part of the debate centers on how to balance the long-term goal of housing everyone with their immediate needs for food, clothing and transitional shelter. For charities that focus on survival, the line between enabling and empowering sometimes blurs.
“Helping can hurt,” says Karen Addato, who founded Breakthrough Outreach/Shelter Network in 2009 to pull the hardest-to-reach homeless people into the social safety net. “I’ve known people who died on the streets with a donated meal in their belly and a donated blanket on their body. We want to lift people up, not keep them where they are.”
If volunteers stop handing out meals at public parks, she suggests, it would force people into soup kitchens and food pantries, where they could connect with other services. It would also prevent the kind of environmental damage that volunteers like Kramer have to deal with at Tully Ballfield and other Coyote Creek homeless camps.
“So many people work with the homeless full-time,” Kramer adds. “That’s all they do. If people supported existing service providers, then they wouldn’t work against our goal to restore Coyote Creek to its natural beauty.”
San Jose’s Homelessness Response Manager Ray Bramson agrees that people who want to help the unsheltered should plug into established programs. Handing out food at random isn’t an effective charity, he says.
“While feeding people shows some support, there are public health risks,” he says. “There are also so many other ways to get involved. We have a great number of nonprofits with extensive experience working with homeless individuals, connecting people into services that can stabilize them in the long-term.”
Mastrocola, who began working with the homeless at the tail end of the latest Great Recession, wants people to support institutional efforts, too. But a cohort of local churches—including his—have committed to filling the gaps created by decades of broken policy. “Not everyone can make the five-mile trip to the food pantry,” he says. “So we go to where they are. That’s our ministry, at least one part of it.”
The churches behind the Tully Ballfield potlucks also offer shelter and safe parking lots for people who sleep in their cars. That same group, called the Winter Faith Collaborative, welcomes homeless men and women into their congregation and helps them find jobs, room rentals and health care. There’s also the matter of clothes that fit, tampons, soaps, clean socks and underwear and shoes that withstand the elements.
“We want to solve this, too,” Mastrocola says. “The difference is that we’re going to help people right now. We’re going to keep feeding people who need it until we have enough affordable housing, employment, a living wage … and other protections against the systemic causes of homelessness.”
Homelessness has long been considered inextricable from urban life—something to endure rather than solve. It wasn’t always that way. Unsheltered populations used to follow the economy’s boom-bust cycle. When the market recovered, houseless people did, too. That began to change with deinstitutionalization in the 1960s that cast the mentally ill out of hospitals and onto the streets by the thousands. In the decades to follow, massive cuts to social services and subsidized housing further gutted the social safety net.
Under President Ronald Reagan, spending on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which manages public housing and subsidized rental vouchers, shrank from $26 billion to $8 billion. Every administration since has continued divesting from public housing and subsidies that used to help the poorest Americans bounce back. As a result, homelessness has become an assumed fixture of the American cityscape. No longer a temporary population of addicts or a wandering workforce, the homeless represent a diverse swath of humanity—men, women, children, veterans and students.
While homeless tallies can be woefully inaccurate by failing to account for people couch-surfing, bunking with friends and family or staying in hotels, the 2015 national homeless census put the official point-in-time figure at 565,000. That’s a conservative estimate.
Last year’s national count reported 222,000 homeless households with at least one child—but the U.S. Department of Education found 1.2 million homeless children in schools. A report published in June classified 460,000 students, or 10 percent, in the California State University system as homeless. That doesn’t even factor in the University of California system and private colleges. And though the South Bay’s point-in-time census identified 900 homeless children, the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s count comes closer to 5,000.
Housing, considered a human right in some developed nations, has become a commodity in the United States. A big part of the discussion around homelessness, of course, is prevention in the face of a market that prices out the poor. With stagnant wages and soaring housing costs, many Silicon Valley households live on the brink of eviction. Thousands sit on waiting lists for below-market-rate apartments, and it takes years to even qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers. Even with a subsidy, people spend months or more trying finding a landlord willing to rent to them.
To make up for the lack of federal funding, local governments stepped in, delegating much of the responsibility for low-income housing and shelters to nonprofits. Only in recent years have the Bay Area governments begun to reinvest in public housing. San Jose approved several motel-to-housing flips in the past year. It also resumed a mandate for developers to make 15 percent of new homes below-market-rate or pay an in-lieu fee.
This fall, Santa Clara County voters will decide the fate of a $950 million housing bond that could build up to 5,000 affordable housing units over 30 years with matching funds. Meanwhile, the city of San Jose will pool $40 million with the county and its Housing Authority to pay for more supportive housing.
“As a culture, we thought for a long time that homelessness was unsolvable,” says Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, a South Bay nonprofit that has housed hundreds of chronically unsheltered denizens. “For a long time, people thought all they could do was ease people’s suffering with a blanket or soup. But that doesn’t fix the problem.”
After two decades in the field, Loving feels confident saying there’s an end in sight. About six years ago, nonprofits and governments adopted what they call a “housing first” approach. The new paradigm builds on the old model of government investment in public housing—except this time at a more local level.
“It seems obvious,” Loving says. “If someone has a home, then by definition they’re not homeless.”
Local data shows that 84 percent of the formerly homeless placed in supportive housing—a place with subsidized social services—remain there a year later. That may partly explain why latest countywide census showed a 14 percent drop in the number of people unhoused a given night from 7,631 people in 2013 to 6,556 last year. Proof, Loving says, that “housing first” works. It’s costly, she acknowledges, but consider the status quo.
The county spends $520 million a year on the homeless by way of jail stays, mental health care and hospital visits, according to an exhaustive 2015 study. In the past six years, the county spent $3 billion through scores of agencies and hundreds of public contracts on 104,200 houseless men and women. More half of them were homeless for only a short period of time, no more than six months.
Another 5 percent are chronically homeless and account for 47 percent of the public cost. Silicon Valley service providers now use an algorithm to predict who falls into the latter group, who cost less to house than leave on the streets.
During that same six-year timeframe, 73 agencies with law enforcement authority in the county arrested more 33,300 homeless people—a third of them for drug offenses. In jail, half received medical care and 8 percent stayed in the mental health ward.
“Prevention, rapid re-housing and supportive housing—those together are the answer,” she says. “But if you’re a church or an individual or a Boy Scout group, you don’t have those millions of dollars to funnel into those solutions.”
How to help in the meantime has become a matter of political contention. At San Jose’s City Council meeting last week, a unanimous vote killed a controversial proposal to build a “tiny home” settlement that would have sheltered 102 people and another plan for a legal encampment. Instead, the council OK’d a 162-unit apartment for the homeless, apparently taking the narrow view that “housing first” applies only to permanent shelter. Proponents of alternative housing, such as modular homes, take issue with the city’s unwillingness to back solutions that could get built in months rather than years.
One short-term solution city leaders approved, however, involves setting aside $5 million to pay for building improvements for landlords who house homeless military veterans. Called All the Way Home, the initiative calls on churches to find people willing to house ex-military members with a rental voucher. When it launched last fall, the county knew that more than 700 veterans needed shelter, and that 260 already had public housing vouchers but no place to redeem then. Since then, 57 landlords have signed on and, at least through March this year, 130 veterans have been housed.
“This has been a really effective approach,” says Maya Esparza, who leads the campaign for Destination: Home. “It’s a manageable way for people to help in a way that’s actually solving the problem.”
Also last week, San Jose suspended permit requirements for churches, synagogues and mosques to allow them to shelter 30 people per site for up to three months.
“Not everything we hoped for,” says Sheila Hill, 60, an ex-paramedic who lives in her maroon Quest minivan with a wound-up terrier named Jack. “And it doesn’t do much for me right now. I’ll still need those free meals at Tully until I find a place.”
Kitchens and food banks, however, say the informal feedings may lack follow-through to long-term support. They also may not target parts of the region with the most need.
“These informal feedings almost encourage isolation,” says AnnMarie Zimmermann, CEO of Loaves and Fishes. “Instead of breaking the chain, they perpetuate it. Even in pure economic sense, it’s not the most efficient way to help. The best bang for your buck is to invest that same time and [energy] into the people who do this for a living.”
Last year, however, the Health Trust commissioned a first-of-its-kind report on Silicon Valley that showed a lack of food access for the most vulnerable. Per the study, homeless people rely on the region’s 14 congregate meal sites—including Martha’s Kitchen and Loaves and Fishes—as a primary food source, followed by 29 food pantries, 44 shelters and a handful of off-the-grid feeding groups.
“What we found is that it’s not enough,” says Rachel Horst, who overlaid census, point-in-time homeless counts and various other datasets to create the Health Trust report. “People still go hungry.”
If all homeless people got one meal a day, five days a week at local soup kitchens, that would amount to 20,300-plus servings. To meet that benchmark, local nonprofits would have to more than double their output. And since most group meal sites lie in the heart of San Jose, they would also have to expand their reach to the most underserved parts of the city—the outskirts south of Highway 280.
“It’s more effective to work collaboratively to feed the homeless,” Horst says. “That way, at least, we can avoid duplicative efforts. But we still have that gap, so we do actually need those informal feeding groups—as long as we can work with them to channel their efforts into a formalized food assistance and move them to areas outside of downtown."
Karen Addato lost three brothers to the streets. Two drank themselves to death and another still grapples with a drug addiction. She tracked down one of her brothers, Stevie, with Google Earth and briefly reconnected. When Stevie died in 2013, she says, she flew to her home state of Massachusetts to retrace his steps.
“He slept in a crate,” Addato says. “And every morning at 8, he would camp outside the same McDonald’s and ask for change.”
Once he collected $11.50, the price of the cheapest vodka, she says, he would call it a day. He would do the same the next morning. Years passed with Stevie camped outside of the same McDonald’s, drinking the same cheap booze and passing out in the same hand-cobbled crate. He died as a John Doe with $4 in his pocket, his broken eyeglasses and a donated cellphone he barely knew how to use. He was 45 years old.
“When that grief hit me, it was like a tsunami,” says Addato, a single mom who seven years ago had lost her home and mortgage business to the economic downturn. “My life had been this fast-moving train, and it all stopped. I then thought that I can’t bring my family back to life, but I can give back to other people.”
At first, she gave back the only way she knew: handing out food. Every week, with help from her son, she prepared and bagged 50 sandwiches to pass out at St. James Park. A devout Christian, she would pray with people and develop relationships with them. People began to ask her for help getting off the streets, she says, so she began to learn about services out there to help.
A second epiphany hit when she saw people drop her bagged lunches after a vendor rolled up with a cart full of free burritos. “I realized that the problem was not hunger,” she says. “I was building relationships, but I wasn’t lifting them up off the streets. So I went back to the drawing board.”
Breakthrough Outreach grew after Stevie’s death into a bridge to connect people on the streets with existing social services. Initially, Addato would set up shop at a San Jose McDonald’s to help people fill out job and housing applications.
Last year, she bought a refurbished RV dubbed the High Tech Rover, a mobile intake center equipped with laptops and WiFi. Ultimately, she wants to create a sanctioned homeless camp and a mobile app to help other nonprofits, public agencies and individual do-gooders collaborate by matching resources to specific needs.
“That way you don’t get random clothing drops,” she says. “That sandwich helps, but you have to be careful not to over-give. Having a technological platform will make things more efficient.”
When Addato first parked the Rover at St. James Park, she says, people lined up because they thought it was a food truck. “I put out this sign that said what we’re serving: detox and recovery,” she says. “Then the line disbursed.”
Dave B., a former university professor who lapsed into six months of homelessness and asked to withhold his last name, says he first approached the Rover because he mistook it for a taco stand. Thankfully, he says, it was something else entirely. Addato helped him sign up for a five-month rehab stint at the Salvation Army and then a sober living home.
“I needed free meals,” says Dave, 62, whose resume lists bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. “There’s a place for that. I needed food to survive. But if that’s all you do, you’re stuck on the lowest rung of existence— just food, clothing, shelter.”
Still, he credits a handout (free food) for preparing him to accept a hand up (placement in a sober living home). A year ago, he quietly sat through a church service for the promise of a hot midday meal. That hour-long wait gave him a rare moment to pause.
“They were singing,” he recalls with hands clasped over a hand-written itinerary of the week ahead, “and I remembered that I want to do something on this earth.”
This story has been updated.