Even as four homeless men died of hypothermia in Santa Clara County during cold weather that has gripped the area in recent days, there were open beds at the county's overnight emergency shelters for most of the past week.
The three shelters -- the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose, the former Sunnyvale National Guard Armory and the Gilroy National Guard Armory -- were only about three-quarters full from the time they opened on Monday through Thursday night, said Jenny Niklaus, the CEO of EHC LifeBuilders, a nonprofit group that contracts with Santa Clara County to provide homeless services.
The fact that there were open shelter beds while people died of exposure the streets in cold weather came as a frustrating reminder of the challenges and legal issues that face nonprofits, government officials and volunteers who are working to help the Bay Area's homeless population, particularly during the winter months.
"There are some people who believe they can ride it out and they will be OK," Niklaus said. "Obviously, the people who lost their lives prove that is not the case. There are people who are mentally ill."
On Saturday, Niklaus' group helped coordinate an emergency outreach effort in which roughly 30 people from the Red Cross, EHC LifeBuilders, the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program and other organizations fanned out to homeless encampments around San Jose and Santa Clara County, handing out blankets, socks, hot soup, coffee and other assistance.
"We are making an enormous push to get people into the shelters," she said.
There are a variety of reasons, homeless experts said Saturday, why people living on the streets do not always rush to sleep in shelters, even in cold weather.
In some cases, they don't know the beds are available. The county's shelters opened for the season on Monday.
"It's a ramp-up period for the first few days," said Ray Bramson, homelessness response manager with the San Jose Department of Housing.
"Shelters start to typically hit capacity in January. There's a word-of-mouth that takes time."
In some cases, people are mentally ill and can't make a decision for themselves. But if their mental illness is not readily apparent, the law does not allow police to forcibly take them to shelters. They can be arrested and taken to jail if they are committing a crime, or they can be taken to a hospital and put on a 72-hour mental health hold if police determine they are a threat to themselves or others. But after the 72 hours is up, they can only be held longer if a judge approves.
"You can't really compel a person to go into a sleeping arrangement," Bramson said. "It's a very gray area when it comes to a person wanting to stay outside. It's unlawful detainment for an officer to force somebody into a shelter."
Shelters are only a temporary fix, he noted, which is why city and county programs are working on permanent housing for the roughly 7,600 homeless people in the county.
Then there are the rules. Shelters often don't allow dogs. Some don't allow people to come and go at night after a certain hour. Anyone smoking, drinking or fighting is asked to leave.
"I've been at shelters where you have to get in line at 3 p.m. and stand there for two hours," said a man standing along a homeless encampment on Coyote Creek at Schallenberger Road in San Jose. "They call the pound of you have a dog. And if you go in, what are you going to do with all your stuff?"
The man, who said he had lived at the encampment before but now has found a room, did not give his name. He drank hot chicken soup and coffee provided by a Red Cross truck.
Niklaus noted that the Sunnyvale Armory now allows pets. She predicted that in the coming days, all three county shelters -- which expanded Friday from 275 beds to 650 -- would be 100 percent full. There are another 350 or so beds at other shelters run by the Salvation Army, City Team Ministries and other groups.
"As awful as it seems to consider somebody living outside in these Third World conditions, that is still that person's home," she said. "For them to abandon their stuff and leave their animals, none of us would do that. I know it doesn't make sense for people always, but we have to remember these are human beings. They are eking out an existence. I know it's not the one we want for them, and that's why we have former homeless people working for us, telling them that life can be better. It's a process. We have to be compassionate."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN