The Santa Clara County homeless population has not decreased, even though Santa Clara County has permanently housed about 850 chronically homeless people in the last 3-5 years. This is excellent progress (if slow) – so why do the homeless census numbers look the same? We are still showing approximately 7500 homeless citizens in Santa Clara County on any given night, which is pretty much the same it has been for years. This is a question that has a complex answer, because it examines what causes homelessness in general, and what specifically contributes to homelessness in Santa Clara County. If we are housing people at higher rates and the census remains the same, then more people are becoming homeless than before.
One of the contributing factors (amongst many) is the effect of AB109. As we all know, the prison system in California is terribly overcrowded, and has resulted in unconstitutional conditions for inmates. This is not a matter of opinion – this was decided by high courts, the same courts that incarcerated these people to begin with. California was mandated to reduce the prison population. In 2011, the Public Safety Realignment Act (Assembly Bill 109) was signed into law, with a supplemental bill (AB117) signed shortly after. These bills made it possible for people who would have served longer terms in prison to be either transferred to County jails or be released early. Instead of being supervised by state parole, they are supervised by probation. The people included under the AB109 program are people who have committed crimes which are “non-violent, non-serious,” and also include “non-high-risk sex offences.”
AB109 gave the counties funding to implement this – in Santa Clara County we get roughly $14 million per year. This funds the probation officers, the increased capacity at the jails, substance abuse services and other support services such as education and employment support. The Mental Health Services Act has added additional funding to provide psychiatric services and psychotherapy. In my opinion, the County has been thoughtful and proactive in the way they have used the money. They have been flexible when they have seen things that haven’t worked as they intended, and they have made adjustments as necessary. I see the people coming through the AB109 system, and they generally feel supported, have access to the services they need, and achieve stability. I believe public safety has not been jeopardized in any significant way.
So why do I bring this up? It is my opinion that AB109 has had an effect on the rest of the homeless population of Santa Clara County. Specifically in housing – AB109 funds about 65 beds – 25 are one-year housing subsidies for those who will become self-sufficient, 20 are 90-day transitional housing beds for those in substance recovery, 10 are supported housing subsidies and 10 are 90-day shelter beds. That is 35 that are permanent or at least a year, and 30 that are 90-day. However, AB109 has increased the homeless population in the county by several hundred – there were at least 200 in the last year alone, and that is most likely a significant under-report because the County is not tracking homeless vs non-homeless AB109 releases. Many of these offenders, who would have been incarcerated in state prison, are now homeless. By conservative estimates, this has increased our homeless population by roughly 600 in the last 3 years. This goes a long way towards explaining why our homeless population has stayed the same despite our rates of permanent housing.