San Jose officials are considering banning homeless encampments and RVs around schools even as homeless advocates decry the move, saying it further criminalizes an already marginalized group of people.
A proposal to prohibit homeless people and their vehicle dwellings within 150 feet of most city preschools, day cares and K-12 schools will go before the San Jose City Council in coming weeks after it was unanimously approved by the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee on Aug. 9.
Although Councilmember David Cohen, chair of the rules committee, signed the initial proposal, he said he’d prefer a policy that enables the city to take a targeted approach to solutions rather than a blanket ban—which would affect 1,012 school sites and day cares in San Jose. But advocates say the city needs to have readily available places for homeless residents to go before forcing them out and ultimately displacing them, and that the city has grappled with alternative housing solutions for years.
“We need to be thoughtful about what we’re asking for,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “In my opinion, (we want) a policy that allows us to react to highly impacted areas when there are issues arising there.”
The only city-run safe parking location opened last month at the Santa Teresa VTA light rail station, which provides 42 spaces for homeless residents living in their vehicles. In June, the city signed a lease for a 6.3-acre site on Berryessa Road with 85 spaces for RVs and 35 for cars that is expected to open next year. Cohen said despite those efforts, that’s nowhere near enough for the estimated 750 RVs San Jose residents are living across the city.
Until the city is able to find more solutions, Cohen said he’s trying to figure out how to get nonprofits, businesses and churches to allow safe parking in their lots, enabled by existing city policy.
“There aren’t that many participants as far as I know, and there should be more,” he said.
Homeless advocates say San Jose is on a trajectory toward criminalizing those struggling to secure stable housing in one of the most expensive places to live in the country. This latest proposal is exasperating these concerns.
John Betts spent more than a decade homeless in the South Bay before he and his girlfriend found housing in San Jose in 2020 through a voucher program. Now that he’s more stable, he advocates for homelessness solutions with Sacred Heart, a local nonprofit. Betts said the plan to ban RV dwellings and encampments near schools will make life harder for those barely making it day-to-day.
“Things they’ve worked out for survival get totally thrown away,” Betts told San José Spotlight.
City officials, including Mayor Matt Mahan, rallied behind the proposal after students and staff of East San Jose’s KIPP San Jose Collegiate complained about RVs and vehicle dwellings parked outside the campus.
Students and staff at KIPP, a public charter high school open to all students, said the people living in their cars are the source of needles on school grounds, threats to students, break-ins and thefts that have cost the school tens of thousands of dollars.
“Students enduring another year of these conditions would be unimaginable,” KIPP senior Alfredo Hernandez told the rules committee. “These experiences bring about feelings of dread and disappointment as my classmates face genuine threats to their safety and security.”
KIPP is home to several thousand students across multiple campuses. As calls for help have intensified, city leaders have been pressured to act swiftly. Mahan, for instance, previously said he wouldn’t enforce such a ban until his temporary housing goal was reached—now he’s saying he will “absolutely not” wait to move forward with this proposal.
Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei said she believes the intent of any new city policy would not be to criminalize any population, including the homeless, especially since violating an ordinance isn’t automatically a criminal act.
“There are those circumstances that have caused students to feel fearful, with breaking in and doing all of these other things, but there are laws on the books to be able to deal with that,” Kamei said at the meeting.
Nora Larson grew up in the Bay Area and is now a teacher at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose. She also volunteers with Sacred Heart and said the city’s proposal is teaching kids the wrong lesson.
“Do we want to teach our students that the solution to societal problems is just to move it 150 feet down the road?” Larson told San José Spotlight. “I think a better life lesson for them would be how are we as a community coming together to address the root causes of homelessness?”
Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on Twitter.