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Can Silicon Valley end homelessness?

Can Silicon Valley end homelessness?

Picture of Joseph  Geha

Silicon Valley is a dichotomous place.

The region is home to some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced companies. But just underneath the highways jammed with cars, along the Valley’s rivers, creek beds and fringe areas, is a scattered network of shantytowns.

Those tattered tents and fortresses, often constructed of crude materials such as twine and shopping carts, house many of the region’s 6,556 homeless people.

According to 2015 figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Santa Clara County has one of the most acute homelessness problems in the nation.

Just over 80 percent of the area’s homeless population is considered unsheltered, meaning they stay in places not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, abandoned buildings, cars, or parks.

That gives the region the dubious distinction of second place on HUD’s list of large urban areas with the highest rates of unsheltered homeless individuals.

The area also ranks near the top in related categories, including the number of unaccompanied homeless youth, unsheltered homeless veterans, and chronically homeless individuals.

According to a study from the Los Angeles-based Economic Roundtable published in 2015, Santa Clara County spent an estimated $520 million annually providing services for homeless residents between 2007 and 2012. That’s more than $3 billion over the length of the study.

Homelessness affects everyone in the region. The president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Dave Cortese, recently said in a statement, “Facing the challenges of the homeless must be a shared responsibility in order to make progress.”

The Board also recently declared homelessness a crisis in the county, and has encouraged local cities to do the same.

If the community better grasped the amount of resources that are being poured into providing services for homeless individuals, I believe there would be a greater desire to better understand the homeless community. This reporting project, backed by my participation in the Center for Health Journalism’s 2016 California Fellowship, would aim to provide that understanding.

I will be examining the financial aspects of the problem from both the side of the county and other cities in the region, as well as from the perspective of those who simply cannot afford shelter in Silicon Valley.

Of the over $3 billion spent on homeless services in the county between 2007 and 2012, a total of $1.9 billion was spent on health care. Of that, the county’s Mental Health department spent $448 million.

In interviews with medical and outreach professionals in the past and specifically for this project, I’ve found that mental and physical health are inextricably linked to homelessness.

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, health problems associated with homelessness can lead to an average life expectancy as low as 41 years for homeless people in the U.S.

Another core theme of this project will be to further explore the misconceptions and truths surrounding mental health issues and homelessness. The aim will be to foster more understanding and empathy and engagement between listeners, the homeless community and policymakers.

I will continue to consult professionals in the field, including nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and volunteers who interact with homeless people daily. I will also keep in close contact with homeless people in the area to hear their stories, and will be interviewing local leaders.

As the Santa Clara County Board works to address homelessness, it has begun to implement recommendations from a recently convened Housing Task Force, and has ambitious spending plans that will require funding from many sources.

A tax measure is being weighed for the June ballot to raise funds for solutions to homelessness through “housing first” methods. Additionally, unconventional temporary solutions are being explored, including sanctioned encampments and a pilot program to allow those who sleep in cars to have a safe place to park overnight.

And, over the next few months, California lawmakers will decide if more than $2 billion should be spent on creating more housing for mentally ill homeless people throughout the state.

Ultimately, it is not yet known which, if any, of the strategies Santa Clara County will be testing and employing will result in the end of homelessness in Silicon Valley.

I will tell this story through a series of radio segments, and there will be an accompanying online written piece, with multimedia elements embedded. I aim to heavily promote the project via social media channels, and will work to spread the project to as large as an audience as possible.

[Photo by Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious via Flickr.]

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.

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