New survey reports decrease in homeless

June 26, 2009 10:33:37 PM PDT
The region's high number of foreclosures does not seem to be creating a corresponding increase in Santa Clara County's homeless population, according to the county's newest census and survey of area homeless.

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In fact, the census, conducted over two days in January, showed a slight decrease, about 2 percent, in the homeless population.

Margie Matthews, director of the County Office of Affordable Housing, said she expected the large number of foreclosures would have a greater impact on the census.

"We were waiting, holding our breath thinking the overall number of homeless would jump as well," she said.

However, Matthews is hardly relieved by the findings.

"More than 7,000 people without homes is still not anything to be happy about," she said.

Of the 7,090 homeless people in Santa Clara County, roughly 1 percent cited the loss of their home through foreclosure as the main reason for their homelessness. The leading cause appeared to be loss of jobs, cited by 30 percent of the people surveyed.

The census, conducted Jan. 26 and 27, involved counts of individuals both on the street and in shelters across the county. The task was conducted by community volunteers and trained homeless workers, according to the final report. The supplemental 28-question survey was administered in the following weeks to more than 900 sheltered and unsheltered homeless.

The inexact tabulation "helps us understand the homeless and design programs to help meet their needs," Matthews said. It also helps the county access roughly $9 million in federal grants for area nonprofits to serve the homeless population, she said.

According to the survey, 70 percent of the county's homeless are unsheltered, living on the streets, or in vehicles, encampments or abandoned buildings rather than in a shelter. Two-thirds have some sort of disabling condition and 41 percent reported having a substance abuse issue. A majority of 79 percent lived in Santa Clara County when they became homeless.

While the overall number of homeless has decreased slightly, the number of chronic homeless rose by 35 percent since the 2007 survey. The census found that 2,270 homeless residents fall into this category, defined by the federal government as disabled, homeless for more than one year, or suffering four or more periods of homelessness.

In recent years, the county has shifted to a policy of placing homeless in permanent housing rather than a temporary housing. This may explain the 8 percent drop in emergency shelter use and 7 percent decline in transitional housing, according to Matthews.

The short-term housing approach "maintains homelessness, it doesn't end it," she said.

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