Acting to end homelessness

Can we eradicate homelessness in Silicon Valley? We must translate available information into action, argue SCU President Michael Engh, S.J., and philanthropist John A. Sobrato ’60.

Acting to end homelessness
Residents of the San Jose homeless encampment known as The Jungle leave after the city began forcibly removing people in Dec. 2014. Photo by Josh Edelson/Getty Images

A new report from Destination: Home and the County of Santa Clara offers an unprecedented, data-based analysis of our community’s homeless population. This study, Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley, is the largest and most comprehensive body of information assembled in the nation to understand the public costs of homelessness.But simply knowing the information isn’t enough. Now we must act. Home Not Found offers insights that must inform strategies to combat homelessness in our community.

Both of us visited The Jungle [a former homeless encampment in San Jose –ed.] before it was dismantled. We came to understand the impact of homelessness in a more personal way. Meeting persons face-to-face, hearing their stories, and seeing how they live is different from briskly walking or driving past someone on the street.

Ending homelessness is a social justice issue. Though we view it through our personal perspectives as a philanthropic leader and as head of a Jesuit Catholic university, we agree on the impact that housing can have on an individual and our community and the importance of passing that priority on to tomorrow’s leaders.

Home Not Found details the fiscal impact homelessness has on our community. Over the study’s six-year period, 104,206 individuals experienced homelessness in Santa Clara County. Services for these individuals cost taxpayers more than $3 billion, or $520 million annually.

In addition, the report identified that the top 5 percent of persistently homeless people each cost the community more than $80,000 each year in combined health and public safety costs. These roughly 2,800 people have endured desperate suffering, and we now know they didn’t have to. Solutions are available that are more cost effective in the long run.

One possible solution is the “Housing First” model. Santa Clara County participated in the initiative, known as Housing 1000, in 2011-2015. It targets individuals who need the deepest levels of support, such as disabled and long-term homeless residents. For them, stable housing is the foundation of recovery.

The data from Housing 1000 demonstrates success: 865 homeless individuals were provided housing, with a 75 percent retention rate. The cost saving was $42,706 per person. Not only does that curb human suffering, but it saves taxpayer dollars too.

We also can invest in Homelessness Prevention programs, which ensure that families do not become homeless for missing a rent payment, that young adults do not exit foster care without a home and that every veteran leaving the military has a place to return to. Investments like these can help thousands of families living in poverty maintain their resiliency and escape the cycle of homelessness.

Rapid Re-Housing Programs, which involve investing in short-term rental subsidies, is another option. Destination: Home engaged in a federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program during the recession, and 93 percent of families across the nation remained housed after the program ended. A small investment to help individuals who fall on hard times is a long-term gain for the county and taxpayers.

Home Not Found greatly informs our community’s efforts to address homelessness, one of the most pressing social issues we face. By immediately focusing efforts on the most costly homeless individuals who are suffering the most, we will transform lives and make Silicon Valley healthier for all of us. Read the report on the Destination: Home website.

John A. Sobrato is founder and principal of real estate developer The Sobrato Organization and a board member of Destination: Home. Michael Engh, S.J. is president of Santa Clara University. They wrote this piece, under a different title, for the San Jose Mercury News.

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