We all know that the streets are a terrible “waiting room” for individuals and families in need of permanent stable housing. It’s not good for any person, any neighborhood, any community, to have folks living out in the elements, without the resources, safety, or dignity everyone deserves.
While we have a County Community Plan to End Homelessness, and many key partners committed to this effort, we are nowhere near “solving” homelessness. And there comes a time when we have to stop and say incremental change is no longer enough. The size of this problem is too immense, and the suffering of people experiencing homelessness is too much, to take anything other than urgent and far-reaching steps.
Which is why, along with my colleague Supervisor Otto Lee, we proposed a “Next Level” strategy, challenging partners in the public and private sectors to join in supporting the rapid expansion of emergency housing across the County.
Our initial proposal was to offer up to $25 million in County funds to jump-start the development of 10 emergency housing sites ($2.5 million per site), using the method of converting shipping containers (modular, prefabricated units) pioneered by the nonprofit, LifeMoves.
When we heard others were interested and equipped to tackle the problem as well, we grew the proposal. I’m gratified that our colleagues on the County Board of Supervisors agreed, unanimously approving a challenge grant of up to $40 million for as many as 16 sites across the county.
We know the need for safe, supportive, interim housing is great. The County’s most recent census suggests that more than 9,700 County residents were experiencing homelessness as of 2019, over 80% of whom were unsheltered – that’s nearly 8,000 individuals. By contrast, the County’s shelter capacity was just 1,882 beds as of January 2020, rising to 2,336 during the pandemic.
LifeMoves’ interim housing model was first tested in Mountain View, where its flagship site was built over the course of just six months, opening in May 2021. With 100 separate units, the facilities immediately tripled the number of cold weather shelter beds in that city and increased the city’s year-round supply by a factor of 10 – and provided supportive services and resources to help stabilize clients and prepare them for permanent housing.
LifeMoves’ prefabricated modular model costs between $50,000 and $200,000 per unit, in comparison to $400,000 to $800,000 per unit for traditional emergency shelters, which can take years to entitle and build. The modular units are portable, and can be relocated to different sites or even be transitioned to permanent housing.
I’m pleased that our challenge grant will serve as a catalyst for greater community involvement and the development of innovative supportive housing – playing a key role not only in addressing the homelessness crisis, but the COVID crisis as well.
We’ve seen how important it is for folks to have their own separate space to be able to isolate from others and keep themselves and their families safe. As we emerge from the pandemic and prepare for future ones, LifeMoves’ model is a smart solution that can provide the safety and security of a home so many of us came to recognize as essential over the past 18 months.
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
This article was originally published in the Saratoga Spotlight on November 2021.