Public-private solutions to homelessness

It takes three things for a community to end homelessness: political will, supportive policies and money. Most communities have one or two of these ingredients, but harnessing all three at the same time has proven hard.

As a result, more than 100,000 California residents are homeless today—about a fifth of the total homeless population in the United States.

Here in Santa Clara County, we have approximately 7,400 people without a home. Of these, 74 percent are unsheltered and 2,000 are chronically homeless, which means they’ve been homeless for one year or more.

The county has the third-highest rate of chronic homelessness in the U.S. Between 2011 and 2016, there were 476 homeless deaths in Santa Clara County.

Our county government has been spending $520 million per year on homelessness. Much of the cost comes from un-housed residents accessing emergency rooms, hospitals, jails and other public systems not designed to meet their needs. The 10 percent of un-housed residents who use the most services end up costing the county $62,000 every year they are living on the streets.

For years, a failing system had resulted in wasted resources and more people on the streets. As in many California communities, it became increasingly clear that we were spending our time managing homelessness instead of ending it.

Yet, despite this daunting challenge, over the past five years, the tide finally seems to be turning. We have an engaged local government, tech stepping up to make significant commitments, and residents voting for meaningful change and resources.

In 2014, more than 200 stakeholders from public, private and non-profit sectors adopted the Community Plan to End Homelessness in Santa Clara County, creating a roadmap to ending homelessness in the region. We forged a true public-private partnership, which has required that each partner contribute substantially and meaningfully to the overarching goal.

Our leaders stepped up. The county formed the Office of Supportive Housing and put an unprecedented and successful $950 million affordable housing bond on the 2016 ballot. Cities like San Jose did their part, too, dedicating resources and approving new projects. Then, this spring, Cisco made a $50 million grant to Destination: Home, a public-private partnership that works to end homelessness in Santa Clara County, and where I serve as CEO.

The grant was the largest tech contribution to homelessness ever. Working together, our goal has been to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. Our two aims are to increase the supply of housing affordable to our most vulnerable residents, and focus on permanent housing, rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention. The outcome of this collective effort has been remarkable. Prior to 2013, there had only ever been 348 apartments dedicated specifically for homeless residents and families in Santa Clara County. Today, there are more than 1,000 new homes being constructed. Hundreds of apartments, with services fully funded, are set to open in the coming months.

In the last three years, 5,124 men, women and children have been permanently housed over—and 94 percent of them are still housed today. While we still have a long way to go, the path is clear. Homelessness cannot be solved without a committed strategy led by a cross section of community leaders. Without this, the effort will not be sustained.

We absolutely can eradicate homelessness—but it’s up to us, because there is no cavalry coming. We must all work together to help our un-housed neighbors, because no one should have to sleep outside.

Jennifer Loving is the CEO of Destination: Home, a public-private partnership working to end homelessness in Santa Clara County.