HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton responds to allegations of program impropriety

Op-Ed: Homeless People Should be Housed, Not Warehoused

By Andrea Urton

I am writing in response to yesterday’s op-ed titled Are We Serious About Ending Homelessness—or Pushing Out Homeless People? by Shaunn Cartwright.

First let me say that we, at HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County, are committed to doing all that we can to assist the 7,398 homeless individuals—men, women and children—counted in the 2017 point-in-time county census. We know that number is low and may not take into consideration other individuals and families who live on the edge of homelessness due to job loss, medical emergencies, redevelopment, or natural disasters such as flooding or fire.

HomeFirst, formerly known as EHC LifeBuilders, has operated the Boccardo Reception Center (BRC) for over 35 years. Our mission is to confront homelessness by cultivating people’s potential to get and stay housed. Our agency has worked toward these goals since our inception in 1980. In addition to the BRC, HomeFirst operates and manages separate housing programs for families, as well as the Overnight Warming Locations that are established each winter at various locations throughout Santa Clara County.

The BRC, the county’s largest emergency shelter with 250 beds for adults only, offers a range of services through a complex fabric of contracts with different government agencies and private donations, including medical respite, VA programs for homeless veterans, reentry programs through Probation, New Start and Working Persons Programs and more. HomeFirst works very hard to leverage limited resources through strategic partnerships with other nonprofit agencies, civic organizations, volunteers, fundraising efforts, and outreach programs.

After a comprehensive and thoughtful evaluation and review process over the course of the past year, which involved meetings with our strategic partners and government agencies, including the County of Santa Clara, the city of San Jose, Valley Medical Center, Valley Health and Homeless Program, San Jose Police Department and HomeFirst staff, HomeFirst recently implemented some significant changes designed to more effectively fulfill its mission to assist homeless individuals get established on the path towards permanent housing.

It is well established that the only viable solution to homelessness is permanent housing, which is especially challenging in Santa Clara County due to the lack of sufficient affordable housing, not just for the chronic homeless, but low wage earners, displaced families, victims of domestic violence, and persons displaced by evictions, job losses, and natural disasters.

For all of these, finding a pathway to permanent housing is much more cost effective in the long run than simply just providing an overnight bed in a large warehouse. The proper solution requires a combination of not just a safe place to sleep, but supportive services, case management and follow up.

This is what Wednesday’s change was all about: creating workable plans for individuals from homelessness to being housed, not warehoused. Bringing in 45 individuals who will have a guaranteed bed for up to 60 days with possible exceptions during which they can receive case management, housing assistance and more.

They will have access to skills building opportunities such as New Start and to the Working Person’s Program that assists them in maintaining a job or jobs—regardless of hours while saving money to prepare for becoming housed.

In the National Alliance to End Homelessness in their “Best Practices of Emergency Shelters: The Critical Role of Emergency Shelter in an Effective Crisis Response System” by Cynthia Nagendra and Kay Moshier McDivitt, states, “Low-barrier shelter is a cornerstone of a functional crisis response system.” And so the BRC located on Little Orchard has been transitioned to a be a low-barrier shelter.

In building upon the concept of best practice, they call for shelter that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year with staff available to allow entry as needed and that there is a direct connection to street outreach.

The BRC and, under the current interim plan, the Sunnyvale Family Shelter are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year with staff available as noted. HomeFirst Outreach Teams visit more than a dozen encampments per day in two-person teams, thus there is a direct connection to street outreach.

Let me be clear, living in a shelter is not ideal.

The BRC is a place that is warm when it is cold outside, and cool when the temperatures soar. We serve three meals a day and because of a great community partnership offer Starbucks snacks and entrees as a choice. We are blessed with thousands of volunteers who prepare and serve meals, run warm coat and blanket drives and so much more. These volunteers greet our guests with respect and consideration.  Our staff is well trained in de-escalation practice and customer service.

We work with every provider named in the article. We have successfully operated the Overnight Warming Locations for San Jose for the past three years, and hope to do so again this year. It is a grueling process, but we are proud of the job we have done.

At the end of the day, anyone advocating for our homeless neighbors is literally saving lives. And we deeply appreciate their efforts. HomeFirst hosts the annual memorial service for those in who have died in our county while still homeless.

Ms. Cartwright was there last year when 116 names were read aloud—the youngest just 21 and many in their 50s or 60s. As far as I know that is the last time she was in the BRC. It is far from an ideal environment, but we know that this new practice will ultimately raise the sense of personal safety, reduce the number of threatening incidents and introduce hope as a common practice. This is what HomeFirst is all about.

Andrea Urton is the CEO of HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to jenniferw@metronews.com