Sometimes you learn more when you just roll up your sleeves and do it yourself.
A few weeks ago, I received a call from a community leader who told me about a group of unhoused people living in a creek bed. She found out they were struggling to access housing because they were mostly Vietnamese-speakers and one of them is 72 years old. She wanted to know if I would help her encourage them to fill out the necessary paperwork to apply for temporary housing.
I was happy to help and thankful for her compassion. But my experience left me concerned about how we, as a city and county, are spending our taxpayers’ funds to address the homelessness crisis.
Looking at recent news coverage, I am not the only one troubled by this.
Several weeks ago, both the San Jose and Sunnyvale City Councils questioned whether taxpayers and unhoused residents are truly getting the most out of the dollars we are spending on reducing homelessness.
In Sunnyvale, the city council halted a contract extension with a local nonprofit that provides supportive services and shelter beds. They were given six months to provide data on shelter bed usage and outreach services.
In San Jose, council members questioned the value of their homeless outreach services. Of the more than 1,000 unhoused residents the providers contacted, fewer than 10% eventually transitioned to any type of housing.
If we are to see meaningful progress on the challenges we face, we must make accountability and transparency a top priority. We must make sure our strategies make sense and that our contractors deliver on agreed upon success metrics.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many members of our community. People want to help – indeed, voters have passed initiatives to address the homelessness crisis. Yet they are disheartened and frustrated that we aren’t seeing the results that they expect. They did not write blank checks; they quite fairly are demanding results.
And this view isn’t limited to homelessness. We’ve had an affordable housing crisis throughout the county for over a decade. Working class families, seniors and students are being priced out. Voters passed measures, to the tune of more than a billion dollars, at the city and county levels to create more affordable housing, yet we are still in crisis.
What is going on?
To understand why we aren’t getting the desired results, we need to institute strong accountability measures.
First, we need to audit the expenditures and revenues of the large departments in Santa Clara County. It’s critical we identify the inefficiencies so we can put our dollars to better use.
We need to institute well-defined objectives and outcomes that our service providers must meet to continue receiving public funding.
As an example, some providers currently report outreach connections as proof they are meeting their contractual obligations. But are connections truly our end goal? Or is it moving people to housing? We need the deliverables to match what we want to accomplish.
Simultaneously, we need all service providers to work together. When leaders in Houston, Texas, were frustrated with slow progress on homelessness, they re-assessed their programs and realized that too few organizations were talking to and working with each other. Government leaders set out to end the “silos” and ensure everyone is working together to achieve their shared goals. We must make communication and collaboration a priority in Santa Clara County as well.
Last month, City of San Jose leaders declared a shelter crisis and homelessness emergency. I support this as necessary to cut through the red tape that delays creation of homeless shelter projects. But we also need to make sure that the services we fund are achieving our shared goals.
I am glad I had the chance to help connect the unhoused people from the creek bed to housing opportunities. But we spend millions every year on homeless service contracts - we shouldn’t have to rely on community volunteers to reach unhoused people who don’t speak English.
This is what I mean when I say it’s all about results: If we are to make real progress on the challenges we face, government transparency and accountability must be a top priority.
Madison Nguyen is a former City of San Jose vice mayor and council member. She is a candidate for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, District 2.
Read the original publication in San Jose Inside here.