By Mina Kim and Lisa Pickoff-White
It was another tough night for those unable to find shelter from the cold. Temperatures have dropped into the 20s throughout the Bay Area over the last week, including parts of Santa Clara County where four men have died of hypothermia since Thanksgiving.
Advocates for the homeless have been visiting encampments to hand out blankets or socks, and encourage people to go to shelters. There are more than 7,600 people who are homeless in Santa Clara County, according to this summer’s homeless count (pdf).
Many people are choosing to come inside; shelters in San Jose and Sunnyvale are at capacity, according to Jenny Niklaus who heads EHC Lifebuilders, which provides homeless services for the county. However, many others are afraid of abandoning their belongings, or living space.
“People who live in encampments are human beings just like we are, and their existence that they’ve eked out is a home to them. Getting them to leave is a really hard thing for us to do,” Niklaus says. “If I came to you right now and said, ‘You know, trust me, your things will all be here. We’re just going to leave your house insecure with all the doors open. Your pets will be fine, don’t worry about that, they’ll still be here. Just come inside and get warm.’ And most people would say ‘No.'”
Santa Clara County has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Children account for nine percent of the homeless popoulation and Niklaus says she’s seen an increase in homeless families, who often, just can’t make the rent.
“We have got to figure out how to make it affordable for people to live here,” Niklaus says. “Building apartments that charge three or four thousand dollars a month isn’t going to get us to that solution. We really need to be looking at initiatives that will create more fees and more ways for us to get affordable housing paid for.”
During the housing census, 93 percent of homeless people interviewed said they want a permanent housing solution. However, 74 percent of the population was unsheltered, living on the street, in parks, encampments, vehicles, or other places not meant for human habitation.
The problem has been compounded in the area, because as the homeless population grows, the amount of available affordable housing is shrinking. Niklaus says Gov. Jerry Brown’s abolishment of the state’s redevelopment agencies in 2012 made the situation much worse.
“That dedicated stream of funding that would build affordable housing is now gone, and the chances of recapturing that large amount of dollars is small,” Niklaus says. “The good news is we have a way to get [people] into housing. We just need more permanent housing and permanent support of housing.”