Economy, H1N1 affecting local emergency shelters

Homeless shelters opened Monday night in Santa Clara County for the cold weather season. This year, more people are expected to turn to the shelters for a warm place to stay since the troubled economy has added to the homeless population.

Monday was the first time in months the homeless in Santa Clara County will have a warm place to sleep at night.

Chris Larsen was looking forward to this day.

"During the day, it's no problem. But as soon as the sun drops the temperature drops straight down," said Larsen.

Compared to the same time last year, Santa Clara County has seen a 10 percent jump in the number of people looking for a place to sleep at night. It has also seen a dramatic shift in the type of people seeking shelter.

It's largely the result of the economy. Many who are unemployed are ending up on the streets for the first time. Simon Smith lost his job as a paralegal a year ago.

"My savings lasted me for probably the better part of a year before I finally couldn't pay my rent, couldn't make my car payments and couldn't even wash my clothes so I ended up on the streets," said Smith.

EHC Lifebuilders opened its cold weather shelters at the National Guard armories in Sunnyvale and Gilroy Monday night. There are 125 beds at each location and it was expected that people would be turned away.

"Unless there is a state of emergency due to weather we really have to stick to those numbers because those are the amount of staffing that we have to keep the shelters safe and running," said Jenny Niklaus, CEO of EHC Lifebuilders.

Niklaus says to prevent the newly homeless from becoming chronically homeless, they try to connect them to local and federal services as soon as possible.

"They never expected to be in this place and so they're still in a place of shock. So what we have to do is quickly get them re-housed so that they're not out on the streets or not without housing for a very long period of time," said Niklaus.

Carlton Mobley is hoping he can provide some inspiration. He was homeless for three years, but now works as a shelter worker.

"I can best help their needs without judging them because I was just like them," said Mobley.

Emergency shelters have more to contend with than just the recession. This winter they must also battle the H1N1 flu virus.

The Centers for Disease Control has new guidance for emergency shelters: staff and clients that fall in the high risk groups should be vaccinated; prevention measures such as hand-washing should be encouraged; and the county health officer says when possible people should be screened for flu symptoms.

"You isolate them or cohort them which means basically putting all the sick people in one area and that does work," said Marty Fenstersheib, MD, a county health officer.

EHC Lifebuilders says even its free toiletry kits now include hand sanitizer. But when you look at the numbers the focus of concern becomes obvious. Last year, Santa Clara County had 83 homeless people die on the streets. So far there have been 13 deaths from H1N1.

In all, Santa Clara County will be providing 500 beds this winter. The shelters will remain open through March.

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