Sheltering the homeless: year-round support in Sunnyvale

When the National Guard Armory in Sunnyvale was razed after 20 years of serving as a cold weather shelter, Santa Clara County was left with 125 fewer emergency beds for its growing homeless population – and virtually none in North County.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents much of the North County and West Valley, led a collaborative community effort that not only sited a permanent replacement shelter, but also expanded the number of beds, services, and the season. Instead of 125 beds for four months in winter, the Sunnyvale shelter now provides 140 beds year-round, with capacity increasing to 175 beds.

“Having a permanent, year-round shelter in the North County provides immediate relief, and will help get some of these folks off the streets and back onto their feet,” said Simitian. “Taking away the burden of looking for a safe place to rest every night frees precious time and energy to be redirected to finding long-term housing.”

Sunnyvale shelter clients applauded both the year-round status, as well as the support services offered. 

“This shelter is a blessing for me,” said Michele, 52, who had been sleeping on the streets or riding the bus all night. “I would have still been out there. Being homeless as a woman, it’s really dangerous. You’re broke, you’re vulnerable. It’s so demoralizing.” 

Unemployed and on disability, Michele was eager to find stable housing, as well as return to school to improve her job prospects. “I’m three semesters shy of getting my AA degree in business management. But I can’t go back if I’m homeless,” she said. 

Santa Clara County has the fourth largest homeless population in California, behind Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Efforts by local cities and the County to curtail homelessness made inroads between 2013 and 2015, when the total number of homeless people in the County fell from about 7,600 to 6,600, according to counts conducted in January every other year. By 2017, however, the number was back up to nearly 7,400.

The decision to close the Sunnyvale shelter – made prior to Simitian’s return to the Board in 2013 – was part of the County’s move towards a “housing first” model, which seeks to fund subsidized housing for the chronically homeless.

Demolition of the armory in 2014 made way for 47 permanent supportive housing units for low income residents. While a welcome addition to the area’s affordable housing supply, the new units did not eliminate the continuing need for access to emergency shelter.  

“When I came back to the Board, I was startled to learn the shelter was closing with no replacement. My immediate reaction was, ‘Where are these people supposed to go?’” Simitian said.  

“We all remember the tragic winter in 2013 when four homeless men in our County lost their lives due to ​exposure in a single week. Having shelters available is key to making sure that doesn’t happen again,” he added. “‘Housing first’ is a long-term strategy and that’s essential. But there’s also the right here, right now when people have to have a roof over their heads.” 

Finding a replacement shelter site for the armory was a “herculean” task, said Simitian, one that required “balancing the needs of our vulnerable homeless population with the concerns of our residents,” as well as facing the constraints of Silicon Valley’s exceedingly tight real estate market. 

Simitian started by successfully proposing that the Board of Supervisors allocate funding to find shelter alternatives for the 2014-2015 cold season, including motel vouchers for family housing in the community, and expanded services from non-profits serving North County’s homeless. 

After examining 70 potential sites, the County found temporary space for the 2015-2016 winter season in three North County locations to replace the armory beds, most of them at the former Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale. 

In 2016, the County found a permanent location less than a mile away from the former air base, converting a County owned warehouse on Hamlin Court. 

“For the foreseeable future, there will be a place in North County for people to go and lay their heads at night. I’m very pleased, and gratified to see the hard work of so many different folks produce such a good result,” Simitian said. “This new shelter was a long time coming, and it will save lives this cold weather season.” 

Funded by Santa Clara County and operated by HomeFirst, the Sunnyvale Winter Shelter offered beds, twice daily meals, hot showers, laundry facilities, and a variety of supportive services, including employment resources and medical care referrals. A locally-based non-profit, HomeFirst has operated County homeless shelters since 1980. 

For the new Sunnyvale shelter, HomeFirst adopted the referral-only entry system it piloted at the County’s cold weather shelter in Gilroy. Instead of a “first-come, first-served” model, with people lining up in the morning to secure a bed, clients are referred by partner social services agencies. 

In the spring of 2017, after the wettest winter in more than a century and a flood that sent many homeless people scrambling from their creek-side camps, Simitian pushed to keep the shelter open an extra two months. 

That June the Board voted unanimously for a permanent extension of the cold weather season and services, adding two months to the schedule, as well as 50 additional beds at the Sunnyvale shelter – 15 immediately and an additional 35 upon completion of an expansion project. 

“For more than 20 years, the County funded its cold weather shelters from the first Monday after Thanksgiving through the end of March,” said Simitian. “While that timing covers a good portion of the cold weather season, it’s inevitable that our Valley will be cold or wet beyond those four months.” 

After opening on October 16 for the 2017-2018 season, the Sunnyvale shelter regularly had a waiting list in the hundreds, prompting a group of shelter residents and volunteers to speak out at a Board meeting in February, 2018. 

“They did a good job of putting forth compelling reasons to consider year-round operations in Sunnyvale,” said Simitian, who led his colleagues in voting to keep the shelter open past its scheduled mid-April closing date and pilot a year-round program. “After all,” Simitian noted at the Board meeting, “homelessness won’t end on April 15.” 

During the pilot period, utilization rate at the shelter was nearly 100%, demonstrating significant need for shelter services for individuals and families in the North County and West Valley. From October 2017 through January 2019, 558 adults and 159 children used the shelter. 

Further, the program was modified to better connect the Sunnyvale shelter to the countywide supportive housing system. During the 2017-2018 cold weather season, 8% of households exited into permanent housing. During the pilot expansion period, that number increased to 25% of households.Calls for medical service or law enforcement also decreased during the pilot period in comparison to the cold weather season. 

In March 2019, on Simitian’s motion, the Board unanimously supported permanent year-round funding for the Sunnyvale shelter, extending its contract with HomeFirst through 2023. (In addition to shelters in Sunnyvale and Gilroy, HomeFirst also operates a 50-bed County-funded cold weather shelter that opened in Mountain View in 2017, and the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose, which has 250 beds offered on a drop-in basis year-round.) 

The goal in Sunnyvale, said Simitian, is to provide interim housing for people participating in permanent supportive housing programs, regardless of the time of year. 

“A shelter can be more than just a Band-Aid. It can provide sufficient stabilization for some folks to find the long-term housing they need. While they struggle to find housing, many of these people end up living unsheltered again. That’s what we want to prevent.” 

While it won’t happen overnight, added Simitian, “We’re all working toward long-term, systemic solutions to end homelessness entirely in Santa Clara County.”

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