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CSA takes on growing homelessness

Demand for Community Services Agency's help on the rise in MV

More people are couch-surfing and sleeping in cars in Mountain View, as the high cost of living in the Bay Area puts a strain on families barely making ends meet. But Community Services Agency, a local nonprofit, is working overtime to make sure homeless people have the resources they need to get back on their feet.

Despite the national message that job creation is up, homeless rates are down and the local economy is booming, the number of people without a home in Santa Clara County has gone up in recent years. The number of homeless people living in Mountain View skyrocketed from 37 in 2011 to 139 in 2013, according to census data from the county.

As a result, there's been a spike in need for its homeless services, according to Tom Myers, executive director of CSA. The organization provides services to homeless people in Mountain View and Los Altos, and there's been in high demand this year, he said.

CSA's homeless services currently helps more than 400 people to find a new place to live that fits their budgets, and provides supplies, food and even financial assistance for those in need. The organization is also one of seven local nonprofit organizations that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund, and donations will go towards funding these services and programs.

This winter will be particularly grueling for people without a home. The Sunnyvale Armory that used to serve as a homeless shelter for anywhere from 125 to 135 people at a time during the cold winter months was shut down last March. With the reduction in shelter space, Myers said there's increased pressure on CSA to serve the local homeless population.

The closure makes the already-bad problem of low homeless shelter space in the county even worse. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Santa Clara County ranks second worst in the country based on the percentage of homeless population that goes unsheltered, meaning they live in places "not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, abandoned buildings, vehicles or parks."

"Shelter is turning into a big priority," Myers said.

In October, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved $1.1 million in funding to fill the gap left by the closure, which includes a motel voucher program, expanded shelter services in Palo Alto and San Jose, and "inclement weather outreach" to the county's homeless population.

The original plan to set up a new homeless shelter in the North County by Thanksgiving, similar to the armory, fell through after the county was unable to secure a new facility due to a "tight real estate market," according to a press release by Supervisor Joe Simitian's office.

Simitian urged the county to act fast going into the cold winter months, which can have tragic consequences on the homeless population.

"Last year, we lost four lives in a week during an unexpected cold spell. That can't be allowed to happen again," Simitian said.

The armory closure means there are no longer any homeless shelters in Mountain View or Sunnyvale, and the ones close by are not "drop-in"shelters where people can show up and expect to get in. Instead, Myers said they have to frequently refer homeless people to shelters in San Jose, which can be a challenging endeavor for someone without a car.

CSA staff works with people who come in seeking homeless services, and explains how to get to the San Jose facilities via public transportation. Myers said they also make sure that anyone who comes in is able to get to the RotaCare clinic for medical care, if needed, and reminds anyone seeking emergency services that they have access to food at any time through CSA's food pantry.

Two weeks ago, Myers said a family came in and needed shelter "right away." He said CSA was able to get the family food and other essentials, and helped them get to the Georgia Travis Center in San Jose.

He said CSA is also putting together "homeless backpacks," which contain clean clothes, blankets, medical kits and tarps for the rainy winter weather, giving people enough supplies to fulfill the bare-bones needs of living on the street.

Myers attributes the up-tick in homelessness, in large part, to the high cost of living. It's putting pressure on people who have housing but can't afford the rent increases, causing people to "fall out of housing." The cost of rent in Santa Clara County has gone up over 12 percent in the last year, and the average price for a two-bedroom apartment is nearly $2,000, according to the CSA website.

"Our rents are so high, people are really being squeezed," Myers said.

He said it's difficult for people to understand that the homeless population is not just a small group of people who are drug-users or are mentally impaired -- it's made up of people you see at work everyday.

"(CSA) serves people who go to work and have jobs. They leave when everyone else leaves the building, but instead go out to live in their car and have to find a place to take a shower," Myers said.

People who come to CSA for homeless services are in "all kinds of situations" according to Myers, whether living in their cars, in an encampment, behind buildings or staying with friends or relatives. He said there are also "varying" levels of homelessness, and services they provide need to fill specific needs. In some cases, using CSA's food pantry is enough of a financial relief for clients that they can afford to pay the rent again.

Others need financial assistance, like a single month's worth of rent -- which CSA can provide as well, but with some strings attached. In order to get that kind of financial help, they need to prove they have a stable income and a place to live that they can afford.

"You have to show that this isn't going to be a chronic situation," Myers said. "There has to be some way of showing that this isn't good money going after bad."

Of the homeless people who come to CSA looking for help to find a new place to live, 20 percent manage to find an affordable place in the area. To Myers, 20 percent is a big success.

"Twnety percent, in this area, with the rents the way they are, that's definitely a good thing," Myers said.

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