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Op-Ed: Santa Clara County Needs to Act on Creative Solutions for Unhoused Residents

With colder winter weather hitting the Bay Area, unhoused people living on sidewalks and trails are falling further into despair.  It’s time to step up to address the crisis on our streets.

Consider the data: The Santa Clara County 2023 point-in-time count reported 9,903 unhoused people with 7,401 of them unsheltered (60% are in San Jose).  Sadly, Santa Clara County’s 2005 Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, and the Community Plan to End Homelessness in Santa Clara County 2015-2020, are not even getting us close to where we need to be.


Encampments continue to pop up in residential and commercial areas because people have nowhere else to go.  The status quo of our county isn’t working.  In fact, it’s standing in the way of progress.


I’ve talked with many families and businesses in our county district who are frustrated and angry because they feel the burden of this crisis is being placed on them.  The failure of leadership to confront this crisis head-on with pragmatic solutions that really move the needle has harmed everyone -- both housed and unhoused.


Last fall, I was dismayed when county leaders delayed a new Quick Build interim housing site at Cerone VTA in North San Jose.  That opposition eventually fell away in the face of strong public support for the project, but we lost valuable time.


With affordable and permanent supportive housing costing nearly $1 million per door and taking 5-plus years to build, we need alternative solutions that are cost effective and can be implemented in the near term.  The good news is that many cities, particularly San Jose, are starting to turn the corner by increasing the number of interim housing sites.  But we can only do so much without strong, consistent leadership from the county and all our cities.

It’s time to adopt a strategy of safe shelter with services throughout the county.  The County of Santa Clara needs to implement strong collaborative efforts with San Jose, other cities, nonprofit agencies and public partners to create and maintain many more interim shelter sites, including tiny homes and RV parking.  These measures are the stepping stones to stabilize and support people whose only current option is an encampment.  They offer a safe, clean alternative where the county, cities and their partners can provide supportive services.


Estimates in San Jose are that we’re spending $65,000 annually per person for encampment management, such as trash pick-up and fire, medical, and police emergency services.  That’s not a sustainable model, and the streets should not be the only alternative to a permanent home.  Prefabricated interim shelter sites can be built in less than a year, at a fraction of the cost of traditional housing, and start people on a path toward self-sufficiency.

It’s time for the county leaders to develop stronger working partnerships and hold themselves accountable for getting people off the streets. This includes creating contracts with trackable goals and well-defined outreach objectives so every dollar is well-spent. At the same time, the County needs to identify surplus county land, as well as work with other agencies to find potential interim housing sites throughout the county.


The bottom line is, the current conditions are unacceptable, and we can’t wait for the perfect solution. Just like BART, the longer we delay, the more expensive and problematic the crisis becomes.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness, and our county must develop a creative and forward-looking portfolio of alternatives to address the inhumane conditions of people on our streets.  Winter storms will eventually leave.  But the current flawed strategy will remain until we change course and hold ourselves accountable.


Madison Nguyen is a candidate for Santa Clara County Supervisor, District 2, and is a former vice mayor of San Jose. San Jose Inside welcomes submissions of signed op-ed opinion pieces from local residents, up to 800 words. Email to editor@sanjoseinside.com



Homeless encampment

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