Interview with Ky Le, Director of Homeless Systems for Santa Clara County

What could a polisci major at UC Davis, a veteran, and a former homeless shelter director have in common? Well, they all describe a single Housing 1000 team member–one whose interdisciplinary skills and insight are KEY to the success of our program. (Key? Get it?)

Meet Ky Le, Director of Homeless Systems in Santa Clara County.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be working with Housing 1000?

Ky: Sure. I started out in the army. When I got out I wanted to continue in public service, but in a different way. My first opportunity was with EHC LifeBuilders, one of the big shelter and homeless services nonprofits in the area. Coincidentally, my very first job at EHC LifeBuilders was running a Permanent Supportive Housing program for homeless severely mentally ill adults.

I had a lot of different direct service experiences, including running the cold weather shelter, which is the only place many homeless residents can go to be warm during wintertime. Providing services to homeless men and women day after day, the problem of homelessness seemed really overwhelming. So in my current County position, I’m happy to be able to work on systems change. Homelessness has complex causes, so it’s only by working together that we can make a big impact.

Q: What do County Services like Mental Health do, exactly?

Ky: The County provides the social safety net. We take care of the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor, including many people who are severely mentally ill. Homelessness is definitely a mental illness issue, and a lot of the problems overlap.

Q: What would you say to people who think that homeless individuals should “just get a job”?

Ky: Well, I come from a refugee family and I spent time in the army, so I definitely believe in hard work and personal responsibility. It’s how I live my life, and how I was raised. Some people, who are able to work, should just get a job! But that’s a judgment you can make about an individual only when you understand that individual. It makes absolutely no sense to apply those same standards to an entire population, especially when many chronically homeless people are simply unable to work because of severe mental or physical illness or other disabling conditions.

I do believe in recovery, but each individual’s path to recovery is different. That means that the amount of time they need support is also different—and permanent supportive housing can support them while they make that recovery and become stable enough to participate in those things that many of us take for granted – like working or going to school.

Especially during hard economic times like these, the reality is that many good people just can’t get jobs. I understand why people who don’t understand the situation might want to judge the homeless in that way, but it’s a dangerous oversimplification. I think we, as a society, are better than that. We can be more compassionate than that.

Q: How is Santa Clara County working with Housing 1000 to create change?

Ky: Well, Housing 1000 is implementing some changes that have been a long time coming. We’ve known and the research has shown for over ten years that permanent supportive housing is the way to help people who are chronically homeless—that is, what works isn’t lecturing them to just try harder, or to watch them cycle through the ER again and again—they need a place to stay while they get treatment!

Housing 1000 really focuses on helping the most vulnerable, chronically homeless population in a way that sheds light on the most needy members of our community. The registry in and of itself has been incredibly helpful—by putting a face to the most medically vulnerable homeless people, we can start to really help them get housed.

Q: It sounds like Permanent Supportive Housing is not news, but prioritizing the chronically homeless still makes some people nervous. What about programs for children and families? How will they be affected?

Ky: Helping the most desperately vulnerable people won’t harm existing programs for other segments of society. That’s just the fear of an unknown future talking. People who are apprehensive about Housing 1000 are thinking about this like it’s a zero-sum game—they’re thinking in terms of scarcity.

The brilliance of Housing 1000 and Destination: Home is that it takes what we already have, and focuses on what could be. We’re doomed if we only work with what we already have, anyway—it keep shrinking! So we can’t let perceived scarcity hold back innovation. People are suffering out there.

Many fine County employees are trying their best to help them, but too often the treatment is ineffective unless the basic need of housing is met.

Q: What can community members do to help?

Ky: Well we’ve got a new project to help clients move into housing, which I think is terrific. Our new crowdfunding site will really help long-term homeless individuals make the transition back into the community and highlights small—and big—ways folks can get involved in ending homelessness.

But the really important thing is to just be aware and informed, and understand how important housing is for extremely low-income people. It needs to be a priority. So let your elected official know you don’t want someone’s mental illness or lack of means to make them vulnerable to an early death—that’s not the kind of democracy we want to live in. We’re trying to use the people’s money to better serve this population—please lend us your voice and join our story.


About K.A. Erickson

I worked with Housing 1000 ( from August 2011 until July of 2012 as an Americorps VISTA member. I am the ghost of Katherine past! I wrote a couple interviews to post automatically even after I left--from beyond the grave, as it were. ;) My current blog talks about fiction writing, world travel and other adventures:
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3 Responses to Interview with Ky Le, Director of Homeless Systems for Santa Clara County

  1. Pingback: Interview with Kate Smith, Program Manager with Destination: Home | Housing 1000 Official Blog

  2. Pingback: When is Savannah’s “major victory” like this coming?: In Santa Clara County, a new funding model for counties ending homelessness | 100,000 Homes | Homelessness in Savannah, Stories for Learning

  3. Pingback: So what does Housing 1000 actually *do*?! | Housing 1000 Official Blog

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