Santa Clara County is dealing with unaffordable housing, inaccessible child care, homelessness and a mental health crisis. One leader wants to build coalitions to solve the region’s most pressing problems.
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg touted her agenda of “building together” on Tuesday in her first State of the County address as president of the Board of Supervisors. She emphasized the importance of building trust with the public through transparency, accountability and accessibility.
“While (the issues are) not unique, they are daunting,” Ellenberg said. “But I’m not feeling defeated, and you shouldn’t be either. Because together, we can find solutions that not only alleviate these challenges, but also uplift our communities.”
As one of the policymakers who declared a mental health emergency in Santa Clara County last January, Ellenberg, 56, said addressing the mental health and substance use crisis continues to be her top priority. She joined Supervisor Otto Lee last year in sounding the alarm, citing a record increase in suicides and drug overdoses, an inadequate number of beds in treatments facilities and the overuse of prisons as a “place of last resort” for those in need of treatment.
She said she’ll continue to push for more resources and build out the workforce to meet the region’s demands. The county has a goal of adding 500 behavioral health treatment beds by 2025, with 40 currently in operation and 50 more set to come online in a few months.
“Mental health and substance use disorder issues need to be addressed in tandem, from a treatment lens, not through a punitive approach,” Ellenberg said.
The county has made some progress in the last year. Last February, the county launched an assisted outpatient treatment program, known as Laura’s Law. It also implemented 988, a suicide and mental health crisis hotline. Some are still skeptical of the program’s effectiveness, citing worker shortages, long hold times and police-only responses to serious mental health crises. The county also committed to spend millions of dollars earlier this year to continue several short-term mental health programs and invest in the county’s workforce.
Dave Mineta, president and CEO of mental health provider Momentum for Health, said Ellenberg’s approach will help the county and local organizations work better together.
“Collaboration between the county and its community partners is incredibly important,” Mineta told San José Spotlight. “We need consensus so that we can support those in our community who are navigating mental and behavioral health challenges.”
Expanding child care services
Ellenberg also vowed to champion efforts to make child care more accessible and affordable in the county, citing the financial burden associated with such services.
“We need to stop our limited thinking about child care as if it’s just an individual parent’s challenge and responsibility,” she told San José Spotlight. “We need to understand that (universal child care) is an anti-poverty, pro-employment economic tool that has drastic consequences.”
According to a 2022 Joint Venture Silicon Valley study, nearly half of all children across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties live in households that struggle to afford basic needs.
Ellenberg has been pushing for the county to upgrade facilities and recruit more workers to improve the issue. Her office funded another study last year showing all-day services for child care could help roughly 30,000 people, or 7,000 households, improve their quality of life.
Santa Clara County resident Chris Leung said she’s impressed with Ellenberg’s commitment to making child care more accessible.
“She appears to be able to reach other people to work together,” Leung told San José Spotlight. “It’s good that she’s focusing on children, but I hope there will also be programs for the (senior) population like myself.”
For residents Julie Krigel and Julie Stover, Ellenberg’s commitment to children and families is the highlight of her work. Krigel is Ellenberg’s cousin. The pair works at ArtHouse Studio, a nonprofit that helps students engage in art.
“Susan cares deeply about children in our community,” Stover told San José Spotlight. “She’s done a lot to get funding and programs instituted that (wouldn’t have) happened.”
Tackling homelessness and housing
The county will continue its work in addressing homelessness and building more affordable housing, Ellenberg said. The region has seen its homeless population explode in the past decade, totaling more than 10,000 people as of last year. Under the leadership of Ellenberg and Supervisor Cindy Chavez, the county’s campaign targeting homeless families known as Heading Home has helped 937 households get off the streets.
To address the issue, county officials have committed $812.7 million out of its $950 million Measure A fund to help fund affordable housing across the South Bay. As of November, the county’s Measure A money has helped produce 1,186 homes, serving 2,508 people. Roughly 1,000 homes are scheduled to finish by next year, and more than 2,600 are in the pipeline.
Jen Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, said she’s confident Ellenberg can bring more housing and resources to the county.
“Without the county’s leadership over the past five years, there is absolutely no way 20,000 people would have come off the streets, (but) we still need to go bigger,” Loving told San José Spotlight. “Supervisor Ellenberg understands the root causes of homelessness. I couldn’t be more excited for her leadership.”
Jim Reed, chief of staff for San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, said it makes sense for Ellenberg to focus on several big issues.
“I thought that was a great speech,” Reed told San José Spotlight. “The county won’t be bored for the next year.”
Editor’s Note: Jen Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.