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Despite Progress, Santa Clara County Sees Sharp Rise in First-Time Homelessness

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A collection of bikes, tarps and other materials forming an encampment.
A homeless encampment is photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in San Jose. (Aric Crabb/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

The rate of new people falling into homelessness in Santa Clara County spiked 24% last year, even as the county housed more people than ever before in a single year, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report from The Santa Clara County Continuum of Care and Destination Home details the county’s progress toward meeting the goals of its 2020–25 Community Plan to End Homelessness. It found that the county was able to place nearly 4,500 people into permanent homes in 2023, a 29% increase from 2022. But more people were falling into homelessness.

“What this data tells us is families are under a great deal of stress,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination Home, a research and advocacy organization that helps implement the county plan.

The number of households becoming unhoused for the first time in Santa Clara County rose by 824. Loving said the jump is the result of ongoing rent increases, stagnant wages, and the expiration of pandemic-era protections that aren’t just impacting Santa Clara County but the entire nation. A recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found half of Americans cannot pay their rent.

“It’s not a surprise because we as a nation have not ever in our nation’s history prioritized the building of deeply affordable housing at scale,” she said. “This is not about individual failings. This is not about crime. This is not about any of the myths that people like to throw in the way of simply addressing our affordable housing crisis.”

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Despite the recent spike in people becoming unhoused, Tuesday’s report shows the rate is still an improvement since 2019. For every household placed into housing in 2019, 2.5 became unhoused. In 2023, the ratio was 1 to 1.7. Officials credit those gains to a significant investment in housing production and subsidies over the past decade.

“We will never be able to catch up to the need if we don’t get more pragmatic with our approach,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said in a statement. “We need to treat homelessness like the crisis it is — and that means challenging the status quo approach that says the only solution to the situation on our streets is standing up brand new apartments that cost $1 million per door and take five-plus years to build. We need to pivot fast and prioritize prevention and basic, safe shelter that takes a fraction of the time and cost.”

Since 2020, the county has moved 13,817 people into permanent housing, 19,575 people into temporary housing and shelter, and provided homelessness prevention assistance to 28,235 people. Shelter options have increased 44% since 2020.

“Our countywide efforts to create new housing and end experiences of homelessness are clearly working, but we need more investments in these scalable solutions to keep pace with the increase in people being pushed into homelessness,” Consuelo Hernandez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing, said in a statement.

Loving is an advocate for cash aid and guaranteed income programs that prevent homelessness. A six-year study of the Santa Clara County Homelessness Prevention System, which Destination Home helps administer, found that giving $2,000 each month to people who were at imminent risk of getting evicted or becoming homeless reduced their chances of ending up unhoused by 81% within six months and 73% within a year.

“It’s far cheaper than what it costs to address the needs of a family once they become unhoused, and it is far more humane to keep a family home rather than having them enter homelessness,” Loving said, noting that Santa Clara County is investing in a number of guaranteed income pilot programs.

The Community Plan to End Homelessness calls for reducing the annual inflow into homelessness by 30%, doubling temporary housing and shelter capacity, and housing 20,000 people by 2025.

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