SAN JOSE -- Timed to the arrival of the wintry season, EHC LifeBuilders is launching its Cold Weather Shelter Program for the homeless on Monday night.
But while the 275 emergency shelter beds at three sites will be a welcome respite from the elements for some, Jenny Niklaus is under no illusions that this is a solution to the complicated issue of homelessness.
"We know that this is only scratching the surface when it comes to the need and dealing with the problem," said Niklaus, EHC LifeBuilders' CEO. "But at least opening up more beds gives us a chance to help some more people. There are so many risks to living outside, especially this time of year."
The program, which is funded by Santa Clara County and runs through the end of March, has 125 beds at the former Sunnyvale National Guard Armory, 100 at the Gilroy National Guard Armory and 50 at the Boccardo Reception Center.
And usually it's a full house.
"Last season we were at capacity every night at the Sunnyvale facility," Niklaus said. "We had to turn people away almost every night at the Boccardo center, and we frequently were over capacity in Gilroy. I expect this season will be no different because the number of homeless is growing."
The opening of the emergency shelters comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report that showed San Jose/Santa Clara County has the fifth-largest homeless population in the country behind only New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego.
Of the 7,631 homeless, who were counted in January as part of a nationwide census, 74 percent were listed as "unsheltered" -- meaning they have no place suitable for human habitation to stay. They instead live in encampments, vehicles or on the streets.
It's estimated that 5,000 people are outside on any given night in the county. Among the more discouraging aspects of the HUD report is that Silicon Valley leads the nation in the percentage of unsheltered veterans, with 80.6 percent of the 718 homeless vets counted living outdoors.
Last year, the Cold Weather Shelter Program provided a roof for 2,897 people during the winter months, including children, seniors and veterans.
People lucky enough to get a spot at one of the three shelters receive a place to sleep, two meals as well as use of shower facilities.
EHC LifeBuilders, which has operated the program for more than 20 years through a contract with the county, is the largest cold weather shelter provider in the county. The nonprofit also has 300 shelter beds in its other, year-round programs.
The alternative for many, is sleeping outdoors. That, simply put, is dangerous.
A grim reminder of that will come on Dec. 19 when EHC LifeBuilders holds its annual ceremony for homeless who died over the past year. Niklaus believes the final number will be close to the 39 people who died in 2012.
"You have to ask yourself as a community: How many deaths are acceptable? How many are OK?" she asked. "I would say that none are. None of these folks should die because they are homeless, exposed and more susceptible to violence. We need to bring more people inside."
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
Here are the available beds at the cold weather shelters, which open Monday.
Boccardo Reception Center
2011 Little Orchard St., San Jose
Former Sunnyvale National Guard Armory
620 East Maude Ave., Sunnyvale
Gilroy National Guard Armory
8490 Wren Ave., Gilroy
The Boccardo Reception Center uses a lottery system for beds. At the armories, it's a first-come, first-served basis.