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Homeless woes in affluent Mountain View

How Silicon Valley's homeless population struggles to make do without services

Early Monday morning, Tom staked out a spot behind a 7-Eleven in Mountain View, keeping a close eye on three bags stuffed with all of his belongings. Unable to find work or an affordable place to live in the area anymore, the longtime Mountain View resident says he's been homeless for a year and a half, and it's been tough getting by.

"I had a routine life (here) for 20 years, and now I'm on the street," said Tom, who asked that his last name not be used.

Tom, 52, told the Voice that he ran into trouble when the property owner of his residence died and he was forced out by the new owner. He said high rent costs in Mountain View combined with difficulty finding a job have left him stuck without a place to live.

"Things just happen," he said, recalling how he used to lead a normal life working in construction. After washing his hair in a nearby faucet, he said he really misses being able to watch TV.

"It's those everyday conveniences," he said.

After about 22 years of living in Mountain View, Tom must relocate. He decided after doing some research on housing costs that he will move to Reno, where he has found affordable rent and living costs.

Tom is not alone. According to 2013 census data from Santa Clara County, Mountain View's homeless population is four times as large as it was in 2011. Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency, said the local homeless population includes plenty of people who "fell" into homelessness because of the high cost of living in the affluent North County area.

Myers said there's a hard-to-break stereotype that homeless people are all drug addicts or mentally impaired, when in reality many of them are employed but sleep in their cars or behind buildings because they can't afford to continue living here anymore.

Tom said it's difficult for people in Mountain View to acknowledge homelessness as an issue, and that they'd rather not think about it. He said people "don't care" when they drive down the street and see him, and probably assume there's a reason he's homeless.

"They're thinking, 'he must do drugs, he's an alcoholic, there's a reason, it's his own fault,'" he said.

Tom said the recent cold weather has made it difficult to stay warm. He said he'll sometimes stay in a motel room for a night just to have a temporary place to stay, but it adds up quickly. Most of the time he tries to find a covered place to sleep.

Myers said CSA has homeless outreach services including classes on how to "survive the winter," and volunteers went out to find homeless people in Mountain View to give out blankets and information on the shelters throughout the county. Tom told the Voice that he wasn't aware of those homeless services.

Santa Clara County ranks worst in the nation among large metropolitan areas for the percent of homeless people who are "unsheltered," meaning they aren't couch-surfing or living in temporary homes -- they're in vehicles, abandoned buildings, parks and behind businesses. Of the 139 homeless people in Mountain View, 136 are unsheltered, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

Creekside encampment

With few options on where to go, many homeless people in the city have taken to the waterways, lining Stevens Creek with tarps and blankets, creating makeshift residences right by bustling Highway 85. Piles of trash and personal belongings sit side-by-side along the creek edge where homeless people sleep, out of sight from the rest of the city.

But living along creeks brings its own set of problems. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has been increasing efforts to clean up homeless encampments along waterways in the county, including this winter's high-profile clearing out of the huge encampment known as "The Jungle" in San Jose.

At the Dec. 16 district board meeting, Carol Fredrickson, the manager of the Watershed Field Operations Unit, said the accumulation of trash from encampments can eventually hinder stream flow and water quality, and that it's the district's responsibility to actively try to keep waterways clear.

The problem, Fredrickson said, is that as the county's homeless population increases, it's going to be harder to keep up. More than 1,400 homeless people are now living on water district property along waterways throughout the county.

"The growth of the homeless population and their encampments has made maintaining our waterways more challenging," Fredrickson said.

She said the water district has received more and more complaints about illegal encampments by residents, local businesses and cities, and that there's a new level in public awareness and public demand for action.

In one year alone, the district reported clearing out 713 tons of trash and debris during clean-up events along creeks and rivers.

But nothing is stopping homeless people from coming back and resettling the area. Fredrickson said homeless people either come back and rebuild after a clean-up or relocate their camp to another place along the waterway. The district's response is to put $175,000 towards funding park ranger services to enable patrols after clean-up efforts to prevent re-encampments.

Despite its recurring efforts to keep homeless people off its property, the water district hasn't ignored the problem of homelessness in the region. The water district was the first public agency in the area to endorse a plan to address the county's homeless.

The program, called the Community Plan to End Homelessness, is spearheaded by a public-private partnership group called Destination: Home. Its goal is to end homelessness over the next five years by providing as many as 6,000 new housing opportunities as well as health care and financial services.

Amanda Montez, communications and engagement specialist for Destination: Home, told the board that homelessness in the county is both an environmental and a humanitarian crisis, and that the water district needs to look beyond just clearing out waterways along creeks and acknowledge the issue of chronic homelessness.

She said the encampment cleanups are a "temporary prevention" that doesn't reach the root cause of the problem, and that the encampments will continue to sprout up along waterways until the county finds a way to house some 6,000 homeless people county-wide.

"Housing is the best medicine, and the sooner that people are housed the sooner the rest of their needs can be met," Montez said.

She said there is an existing program that prioritizes housing the homeless called Housing 1000, which has already helped to shelter 825 people in the county. Of those people, Montez said, 85 percent have remained housed for more than three years.

"We've (already) effectively housed the entire homeless population of Tokyo," she said.

Robert Aguirre, one of the hundreds of people cleared out of The Jungle, said he lost his job after most manufacturing business "left the country" years ago, and he wasn't able to find employment that would help sustain his wife and four kids. He said he lost his job, and his wife and kids left him before he ended up in the homeless encampment.

When The Jungle was finally cleared out on Dec. 4, Aguirre said, it was a difficult transition for many people who took up residence there.

"On a rainy, rainy wet cold day, these people were forced out into the streets with nowhere to go. The big question that everybody kept asking was 'where do we go?'" he said. "The question we're still asking today is 'where do we go?'"

Aguirre said he was eventually able to get a place using a housing voucher provided to him and many others after the cleanup, but that there were plenty of people who weren't so lucky. He said it's fine for housing initiatives like Housing 1000 to hand out vouchers to every displaced homeless person, but that it wasn't worth anything if there's nowhere to cash it in.

"You don't want us on creeks, you don't want us on parks, you don't want us in streets, you don't want us in businesses, you don't want us in driveways, parkways -- you don't want us anywhere," Aguirre said." The bottom line is we're not going to evaporate. We're still here!"

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