Santa Clara County counts homeless, examines costs of cleaning up encampments

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tent of the homeless
Temporary dwellings like this one in East Palo Alto are becoming more common in Silicon Valley. Next month, Santa Clara County will release the results of its Count the Homeless report, which helps the county allocate funds for sheltering homeless people and cleaning up their encampments. (Photo: Archer Zhang / Peninsula Press)

In May, Santa Clara County will release its comprehensive “Count the Homeless” report, which includes census data from the 15-city count and survey information, evaluating the increasingly contentious issue of illegal and environmentally detrimental homeless encampments.

Encampments, typically located along waterways, impose a massive environmental and fiscal cost on the county. Cleanups last year cost Santa Clara County and water district about $20,000 a day, and the pollution in creeks cause “deterioration of water quality,” according to Santa Clara Water District Spokesman Marty Grimes.

“For cleanups, it’s very expensive because of all the work to de-pollute creeks,” County Homeless Concerns Coordinator Robert Dolci said in a phone interview. Equipment such as hazmat suits is “tremendously expensive,” Dolci said, adding that the cleanups are often ineffective because “people move from one place to another during cleanups and then just come back eventually.”

The environmental toll is equally significant. Illegal encampments lead to the breakdown of creek banks, which increase flooding in the surrounding areas, and “dramatically exacerbate” the amount of trash in Santa Clara’s freshwater, according to the Santa Clara Water District. This creek water eventually flows north to the San Francisco Bay or south to the Monterrey Bay, but along the way, also fills reservoirs for drinking water.

Between 2009-2010, about 79 percent of the 131 tons of debris Santa Clara County removed from waterways came homeless encampments.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires counties across the United States to count the number of unsheltered people in their borders so it can properly allocate resources. These resources consist of grants for services like emergency shelters and subsidized housing, said Menlo Park City Mayor Kirsten Keith in a phone interview.

Although “Count the Homeless” is a national policy, Santa Clara County is distinct in its philosophy, according to Peter Connery, vice president of Applied Survey Research, which organizes the count. Unlike others, this county accounts for the diversity in the definition of homelessness, including everyone from vehicle dwellers to those living under highways. This specificity is necessary because “it’s really hard to help people if you don’t know how many there are or where,” said Keith.

For many Santa Clara residents, the “where” is clear. According to Connery, past years have always focused on an overall headcount, never on subsets of homelessness like encampments. However, “this year [the issue of encampments] has been high profile for the city of San Jose especially,” Connery said. He added that some in the the surrounding, affluent communities perceive the homeless encampments to be dangerous and unsightly, and the county has received pressure to focus “particularly on ameliorating the number of encampments.”

Experts believe that the results of the count will indicate an increase in encampments. The increase is visible in some areas, like beneath the 101 highway. The results of the census will determine how the federal and local governments will invest resources to clean up the encampments.

In 2011, the last time the county conducted a count, Santa Clara County funded cleanups of 46 different areas, with a total individual 118 cleanups because many encampments had to be re-cleaned when people returned. To clean just five of the estimated 70 encampments, San Jose invested $632,000, according to a San Jose City Council memo.

The number of chronically homeless people, those unsheltered for over a year, living in outdoor areas including parks and encampments, increased from 35 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2011, and some officials believe the encampments have grown at a faster rate since.

One solution would be  for Santa Clara County to pay about $16,000 per homeless person – the cost of a year’s worth of shelter housing, according to research by the San Jose non-profit Destination: Home, which combats homelessness by building supportive housing. This compares to a cost of about $60,000 that the county would have to pay if the same person were to be incarcerated or become dependent upon emergency room services, two common fates for those living in encampments.

Still, Santa Clara County, one of the 20 wealthiest counties in the nation according to a 2010 Forbes list, has seen minimal support for homeless services that could benefit both wealthy taxpayers and the homeless. Conflict between shelters and the communities in which they reside persists, in what Connery calls a “sad social commentary” on the apathy of the wealthy in the United States.

Regardless of local support, the federal government grants Santa Clara County about $11 million every year to allocate to its 37-total community-based programs. This amount is based upon the geographic concentration of the homeless in the Homeless Count and their general needs, according to Dolci. With this $11 million-dollar budget earmarked, cities throughout the Mid-Peninsula area mobilize to envision creative grassroots ways to address their homelessness issue, and recently, the issue of encampments particularly.

In March 2012, San Jose reorganized its cleanup efforts to focus on preventing “re-encampment,” the term used when homeless people return to encampments after officials have cleaned them. The city successfully moved 30 homeless people into supportive housing services, motels or shelters with state-funded case-management services to aid their getting back on their feet. For 2013, San Jose has earmarked more than $1.4 million for similar projects. In the city of San Mateo, in neighboring San Mateo County, officials have designated an old church as permanent, government-owned housing for people who can’t afford other housing.

Dolci and others are encouraging the city to institute “tenant-based rental assistance programs,” or subsidies that make it feasible for owners to rent out their properties at or below market value. This would begin to address what Connery called a “radical under-allotment of housing for the low-income” in Santa Clara County.

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