Jennifer Loving is leading the charge to end chronic homelessness through “housing first”
~ By Bonnie Wach; photos by Nikki Ritcher.
Finding a solution to homelessness is not a career that many people know they’re destined for at an early age. But Jennifer Loving could probably have predicted it from the time she was 10. While she grew up in a tiny Southern California mountain town near Big Bear, she spent a lot of her formative years at the Bible Tabernacle church in Venice Beach, an ersatz homeless shelter where her uncle was the minister.
“It was a church where anyone could come. People slept in the pews. It was eye-opening for a white middle-class 10-year-old,” remembers Loving, the feisty, down-to-earth executive director of Destination: Home. The public-private partnership is working to permanently house homeless individuals and end chronic homelessness in Santa Clara County.
“My uncle and his family lived in the church to keep it open just so people could have a place to go. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s just what you do. When somebody’s struggling, you do something.’”
That experience left a deep impression on Loving, one that she carried with her through college at the University of Redlands, where she interned at a women’s domestic violence shelter and saw firsthand how circumstances could conspire to put people out on the streets. Later, while earning her master’s degree in psychology at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, she worked as a counselor at a group home for emotionally disturbed teenage girls.
“There’s an interesting mythology around homelessness,” says the 42-year-old San Jose resident. “It’s easy to raise money about cancer. Anyone can get it. But people can’t get their heads around homelessness. It’s hard to understand ‘that person could be me.’ Homeless people personify what we’re afraid of.”
Since assuming the directorship of Destination: Home in 2010, Loving has set a one-way, no-detours course to end homelessness in Santa Clara County. Partnering with the local Housing 1000 campaign (a branch of the national 100,000 Homes program), as well as some two dozen organizations ranging from the city of San Jose and charitable groups to private companies and philanthropic foundations, she has helped create a face-by-face registry of the county’s chronically homeless population (those who have been on the streets for more than a year, or more than four times in three years), with the goal of permanently housing 1,000 of them by 2013.
Despite all its blue-chip tech companies and an IPO-rich workforce that places it among the top 25 wealthiest counties in the nation, Santa Clara also ranks among the highest in the state for homeless people. In 2011, when the last U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) survey was done, there were upwards of 7,000 men, women and children living on the streets in Santa Clara County, 2,500 of them chronically — more than double the national average.
“Santa Clara is so big and spread out. The homeless population is not concentrated like it is in San Francisco, but there are more homeless here than in S.F.,” Loving says. “The housing costs in Santa Clara have risen, and wages have not. To be able to afford housing here [$1,222 for a studio apartment, according to latest HUD estimates], the average person needs three or four jobs. Between the haves and the have-nots, it’s really a tale of two cities.”
The registry process began in July of 2011, when Loving and 350 volunteers went to every street corner, underpass, encampment, creek, bridge, nook and cranny in Santa Clara County seeking out and documenting homeless individuals and families.
“We got a really good snapshot of who was out there, what their vulnerabilities are,” Loving says. “We used that information to say to our partner organizations, ‘This is how we need your help.’ When we started, we had no housing. Today, we have 430 units or subsidized rentals lined up and available. We housed 10 people just this week.”
The aim of Destination: Home is to keep those people housed by “removing whatever barriers stand in the way,” Loving says. “We raise money online for furniture, get security deposits paid for, coordinate care, make sure they’re getting all their veteran and Social Security benefits. Each person we house has intensive case management, with daily contact if necessary.”
Loving stresses that for many, getting housed is more important than finding work.
“For the chronic vulnerable folks, regaining successful employment may not always be possible. We are working with a lot of folks over the age of 60 who’ve been outside for 20 years and have multiple disabilities. For them, success means accessing benefits they are entitled to and reducing the costs associated with long-term homelessness.”
If Loving sounds determined and a little impatient, it’s because she is.
“Sixty-one people died in the streets [of Santa Clara County] last year, often from treatable illnesses. The longer people are outside, the more likely they are to die prematurely,” she says.
“And it costs us more. The ambulance rides, trips to the ER, psychiatric treatment — public services are far more expensive to the taxpayer than housing them.
“No one likes stepping over people on the way to work. Once we know it costs less to house folks, it’s a total home run.”
The idea of “housing first” represents a 180-degree shift from the piecemeal approach to homelessness that most cities and counties tried in the past — an entrenched and expensive system that emphasized temporary shelters, counseling, soup kitchens and other short-term services.
Loving admits that convincing people to think outside the established comfort zone and embrace a completely new model has been challenging at times.
For her, however, starting from scratch is nothing new. Before Destination: Home, she worked at EHC (Emergency Housing Consortium) Lifebuilders in San Jose, an organization that helps house homeless people and teaches them life skills. Over the course of a decade, she moved her way up from caseworker to programs director, chief operating officer and eventually CEO.
During those years, she and husband Jesse, a startup entrepreneur whom she met through friends in 2002, gave birth to daughter Maya, spent time traveling in Belize and fell in love with a small island in the Cayo District of that country on the border of Guatemala. Loving left EHC in 2009, but instead of settling down to suburban domesticity, she and her family decided to sell everything, pack up the car and move to Belize.
“I wanted my daughter to grow up understanding how people in other less consumer-driven societies live. I never thought I couldn’t do it. I mean, who doesn’t take their 4-year-old to live off the land in the jungle?” she says, laughing.
Loving spent the next year volunteering at a rural children’s arts foundation in Belize and helping Jesse build an ecologically sustainable house on the two-acre plot they’d purchased.
Then, in 2010, she got a call from San Jose Director of Housing Leslye Corsiglia offering her a job with Destination: Home. Her mandate: Change the system and end homelessness. She jumped in with both feet.
“Jennifer really has an understanding of and passion for the mission and a vision of how we get there,” Corsiglia says. “She brought leadership to the table. She’s been able to open doors and bring in high-level people from both government and the private sector. And I think they have confidence in her and her ability to make this work.”
For Loving’s part, she sees Destination: Home as an effective and expedient means to an end.
“There’s been lots of people here interested in addressing homelessness, but this was the first initiative that made a case for ending it. If I really do what the mandate asks, I won’t be in my job for long. That’s good marching orders for me,” she says.
Loving feels that with all its tech know-how and resources, Santa Clara County is uniquely positioned to succeed.
“The idea is to take the elegance and innovation of Silicon Valley and apply it to homelessness, by being data driven, by using crowdfunding, by joining forces with other organizations involved with homeless care and tapping their resources and expertise. And I think it’s working. For the first time ever, the county invested $1.2 million in permanent housing subsidies. It’s the beauty of what a community campaign can do.”
For more information about Destination Home and how you can get involved, see destinationhomescc.org.
Nightstand reading: “Global Girlfriends” and “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” – both are about women trying to make a difference in our world.
Inspiration when she’s down: My daughter (now 7). Every week she asks me how many people we’ve housed. It’s so simple to her: “What’s taking you so long?” “People shouldn’t sleep outside.” “Hurry up already.” Whenever I feel discouraged, I remember she’s counting on me – and seeing it through her eyes makes it seem easy even when it’s not.
Role models: I’ve met countless heroes living on the streets of Silicon Valley over the last 16 years. People who raise their families, work full-time jobs, fall in love, vote, go to school, get sick — all without a home.
I remember when I was very pregnant and feeling sorry for myself. A woman walked into my office – as pregnant as I was, but she’d been sleeping outside in her car with her 3-year-old daughter – and her attitude was better than mine. Talk about a reality check. She was a terrific mom who simply didn’t have the resources most of us take for granted. With just a little bit of help, she got out of homelessness, went back to school and got a job — all while being a single mom with two kids. She’s my hero. She should be everyone’s hero.
Biggest fear: The idea that an individual matters more than our community — this notion we’ve somehow adopted domestically that in reality only serves a few. Individual gain at the expense of our community, our environment, our children isn’t really success at all. It doesn’t have to be either/or; I much prefer both/and. I’m happy with a little less if it means you can have a little more.
Wish for the world: I’d make sure that everyone in our world has access to clean water. I see domestic homelessness as our nation’s greatest crisis, but we still have so many more fundamental resources compared to other places in the world, like access to clean water and sanitation. That’s why I love organizations like Charity: Water and others that are tackling these problems head-on. There’s so many ways to be involved in making our world a better place.