By Jacqueline Lee
ALO ALTO -- For more than 15 years, Kenneth Pierre, a disabled Vietnam veteran, spent nights sleeping in his Chevrolet Corsica, church shelters or city parks.
Pierre was battling alcohol addiction and injuries from a motorcycle crash that left him unable to work.
Like other veterans, Pierre, who served in the U.S. Army, said he had a hard time admitting there was a problem, much less asking for help and alerting others of his situation.
Then another homeless veteran convinced Pierre to join the Downtown Streets Team, a program that helps homeless men and women develop job skills through daily cleanup projects in Palo Alto.
"My friend said, 'I never knew you to be someone who does nothing,' " Pierre recalled.
Around the time Pierre graduated from the Streets Team program, where he now serves as a team manager, he was assigned a spot in the city's new Opportunity Center for the homeless.
The Opportunity Center, which opened in 2006, has 70 single-occupancy rooms and 18 family apartments. It houses the Peninsula Healthcare Connection, which provides medical services, and serves as a home base for the Streets Team.
Now that Pierre is in a place to aid others, he said it's clear what is needed most in the Bay Area to help homeless veterans. "Housing, housing, housing," Pierre said.
"Nobody wants to live like that," he added, referring to homelessness.
According to a 2015 Santa Clara County survey, 683 of the county's 6,556 homeless are veterans. In Palo Alto, 40 out of the city's 219 homeless are veterans.
Janbir Sandhu, of the Sobrato Center, described what veteran homelessness looks like today in the county at a summit on the topic earlier this month organized by the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.
About 71 percent of veterans who are homeless became so recently and therefore are not counted in the chronic homeless category, which includes those who have been homeless more than a year, Sandhu said.
About one-third were renting or had their own homes before becoming homeless, she added.
The reasons veterans become homeless vary: 32 percent mention job loss, 19 percent blame use of drugs and alcohol, 18 percent have a chronic health condition, 14 percent cite divorce or separation, and 3 percent lose housing because of a fallout with friends or family.
The summit brought together nonprofits, veterans and representatives from the county and Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss how to improve access to health care and housing for the homeless.
Veterans on the panel said the most effective solutions involve veterans helping each other.
Another suggestion was to ask businesses to prioritize hiring veterans and help subsidize their housing.
Many potential solutions discussed at the summit centered on finding affordable housing in the Bay Area.
Veterans Affairs has 141 beds in the county where vets can stay for two years and then move on to permanent housing, but more are needed.
"If you close your eyes and ask yourself what is needed, it is housing," said Ky Le, director of the county's new Office of Supportive Housing.
Discussions about where to house the homeless are often uncomfortable and difficult, Le said. "It's about whose land, where it is next to, and who's funding."
This summer, the county launched California's first Pay for Success project with Abode Services to test a new funding model where governments use private investments to cover upfront costs of an initiative and only pay if the program exceeds initial goals.
The county's $6.9 million project aims to house 150 to 200 chronically homeless people over six years at various locations. As of Sept. 30, the program found homes for 22 individuals, Le said.
Another project has the county working with Palo Alto to provide housing for chronically homeless people who have gone through the criminal justice system.
The partnership involves the county providing housing subsidies and the city paying $250,000 over two years to use Peninsula Healthcare for case management services. As of September, the program has housed eight people; the goal is 20 people by the time the contract ends June 30.
Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination Home, which is the local Continuum of Care board that administers $16 million of HUD funding to the county to address homelessness, said one way Palo Alto can focus on housing for homeless veterans is through its own Pay for Success initiative.
Loving applauded Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman's announcement at the summit to sign on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, pioneered by first lady Michelle Obama.
But Loving also hopes Palo Alto will endorse a countywide community plan to end homelessness. The plan includes a goal of finding 6,000 housing opportunities by 2020 for the homeless in the county.
"There's no mystery in solving homelessness. Homelessness ends when people have a place to go," Loving said.
One approach the county and San Jose are exploring is to create a safe parking program where homeless people can stay inside their cars in a parking lot, Loving said. Another strategy is to establish a modular housing community.
After the economic recession, it was easier to find housing for the homeless but jobs were still scarce, Loving said. Today, the county is in a situation where officials have stepped up subsidies but the housing shortage remains.
Still, Loving and others believe recent aggressive efforts on curbing homelessness have worked.
The 2015 county survey shows that in the past 10 years, homelessness overall decreased countywide by 14 percent and veteran homelessness by 2 percent.
In Palo Alto, homelessness went down 39 percent.
Eileen Richardson, executive director of Peninsula Healthcare who matched Pierre with the Opportunity Center years ago, believes these numbers point to a solution.
"The Opportunity Center, the medical clinic, Downtown Streets Team: All those things happened in 2006," Richardson said. "The decrease is significantly more in Palo Alto. It shows that this model works."
The cost of building housing units, upward of about $300,000, pale in comparison to the cost of providing continued care and the impact on emergency rooms and jails, she noted.
The challenge now is to find the space in Palo Alto to build more housing like the Opportunity Center, Richardson said.
Candice Gonzales, executive director of Palo Alto Housing Corp., said the group has about 700 affordable housing units serving 2,300 residents.
"We're constantly looking for opportunities but we cannot start our work here until we sort of see an opening," Gonzales said.
The challenges to building in Silicon Valley includes finding land and having money to compete for the land.
"Then it's whether we have the zoning we need to have a density that makes the project profitable," Gonzales said. "We have the site on El Camino (in Palo Alto), but under the current climate, we're hesitant. After what happened with Maybell we're not confident we would get that type of community support."
Gonzales was referring to a referendum two years ago where residents voted down the Maybell Avenue housing project for low-income seniors.
"It's one of the least impactful projects you can bring to a community," Gonzales said. "If you can't get a project for seniors through, it would be near impossible to get any other affordable housing project through."
Public sentiment aside, the city's zoning rules also makes things difficult, Gonzales said.
The group is working on a project on a 22,000-square-foot lot in Mountain View that will give half of its 60 units to veterans.
"A similar-sized site we own in Palo Alto can only build 13, which doesn't make it financially feasible," Gonzales said.
The city's housing element includes goals for affordable housing specific to the homeless and veterans.
But Gonzales said the community has to understand that if it truly wants more affordable housing, then zoning has to allow higher density.
Minka van der Zwaag, city staff liaison to the Human Relations Commission, said the commission sees itself as part of the solution in working with community members and hearing their concerns to bridge the gap for affordable housing.
And the summit was a first step in starting that dialogue and bringing the homelessness issue before Palo Altans.