Amid controversy over Tully Library, San Jose set to expand overnight warming centers

While most people can seek refuge from the bleak winter’s cold in the comfort of their own home, every year thousands of homeless people in San Jose shiver outside as they sleep in frigid conditions.

That’s why city elected leaders on Tuesday will consider opening overnight warming locations at two city locations every night for six months. It’s a major expansion because the centers were traditionally open only a few months in previous years, based on inclement weather conditions. There are four warming centers in San Jose, with two of them at the city-operated Bascom Community Center and the Roosevelt Community Center.

But some homeless advocates are furious that a warming center in the heart of East San Jose inside the Tully Library — where droves of homeless residents gather — won’t open again, for the second year in a row. They’re blaming District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza, and they’re planning to speak out at Tuesday’s meeting. They have even started a petition.

“The (overnight warming locations) only have spots for 30 folks, but that’s 60 folks that won’t die. Tully Library hasn’t been open for two winters, which is so cruel and very inhumane,” wrote advocate Gail Osmer in a Facebook post, urging fellow residents to support re-opening the library. “Call your city councilmember and have them support opening Tully.”

But Esparza, whose district includes the Tully Library, said re-opening the library presented more challenges than solutions. Overflow was inevitable because of the small space, Esparza said, which caused a few disputes between neighboring residents and homeless individuals, and it deterred residents from using the neighboring ball field that acted as an “encampment” for some of the unhoused.

“There are some people who are more comfortable putting homeless resources into poor communities, than in their own,” Esparza told San José Spotlight on Monday. “This is not their neighborhood. The homeless crisis is a citywide issue, and so they’re welcome to bring those resources to their own communities as well as what district seven is already doing.”

In the city, overnight temperatures can plunge as low as 30°F during the winter months, posing a life-threatening harm to those sleeping in the streets. To help those struggling to stay warm during the cold nights, San Jose lawmakers on Tuesday will vote on expanding resources for an overnight warming location (OWL) program intended to provide shelter for the unhoused during the cold season.

Since 2015, San Jose has declared a “shelter crisis,” allowing the city to use public buildings for overnight warming locations to shelter unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. But since the number of homeless individuals has increased in recent years, housing officials now want to expand the program using a one-time grant from the state to house the homeless community on a nightly basis.

For years, the city has partnered with HomeFirst, the largest emergency shelter provider in Santa Clara County, in providing overnight warming locations to accommodate the whopping 84 percent of unsheltered residents in the city. The number of homeless individuals in Santa Clara County has alarmingly increased in recent years by at least 40 percent from the 2017 homeless census to a total of 6,097 individuals in 2019. As the number of unhoused residents grow, city officials hope to expand the program to a nightly basis with HomeFirst, who they consider the most “experienced” organization in the region to operate the program.

“Given the increase in our homeless community and lack of available shelter beds, staff is proposing to operate OWLs at two city locations every night for six months during the cold weather season,” wrote housing director Jacky Morales-Ferrand, along with several other city department directors. “Previously, the city-funded OWLs were only open during periods of inclement weather offering brief emergency shelter overnight when temperatures or a combination of precipitation, including wind and temperature, became severe. This memo details the proposed program changes that increase OWL operations from inclement weather only, to a nightly operation.”

The two city locations — the Bascom Community Center and Library and the Roosevelt Community Center — will operate as overnight warming shelters every night from 9:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. Currently, there are only 849 emergency shelter beds in the city. To avoid long lines for a bed, homeless residents will have to be referred by HomeFirst either through outreach or a case manager in order to participate in the program. Each referral lasts 60 days and is eligible for an extension.

The funds will be increased from $350,000 to $1,484,180, which will go toward funding crisis response strategies such as additional emergency shelter beds, homeless prevention and essential services. The program also offers access to restroom facilities and showers, packaged meals, site set up, supervision, janitorial services and security onsite.

In a joint memo, Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Dev Davis urged their colleagues to support the program.

“As cold weather months approach, it is imperative that we provide our homeless residents with as many emergency shelter beds as possible. One such solution is an overnight warming location,” wrote Liccardo and Davis. “Approval of overnight warming locations moves us closer to providing more interim housing solutions in the city of San Jose.”

If approved by the City Council Tuesday, the proposed funding will provide an additional 60 emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals each night during the cold weather season from Nov. 1 through April 30, 2020.

Fireworks ordinance

Also on Tuesday, city leaders will discuss an update on San Jose’s plan to curb the use of illegal fireworks.

The city in recent years has beefed up enforcement for illegal fireworks by using a system for the public to report illegal activity through a phone line and online tool. Yet, the city is still experiencing problems with the system and its reliability.

As a result of previous years’ challenges, officials have implemented new strategies to improve the city’s resources during holidays where the use of illegal fireworks surges, such as implementing an informational “Fed Up With Fireworks” campaign at several middle and high schools and by improving the online-reporting tool by strengthening IT services and adding a translation service.

For the first time, fire officials partnered with Andrew P. Hill High School, Leigh High School and Dartmouth Middle School to display anti-fireworks campaigns on digital billboards and banners.

“In addition to seeing the benefits of a consistent campaign message, we have a stable online reporting system to capture the data individuals submit that is necessary to issue citations and warnings,” said Fire Chief Robert Sapien. “The city has made major progress on all components of the program, however, there continues to be blatant illegal use of fireworks. The team continues to develop methods to define, gather, normalize and track data that can be used to make program adjustments.”

The mayor and several city councilmembers also want to help curb the use of fireworks by adding a “social host” law, which places liability on the property owner that the fireworks were set off from, while adding improvements to the city’s reporting tool by integrating it into the “MySanJose” app.

During Fourth of July this year, there were 15 fireworks-related incidents, including seven vegetation fires, one structure fire, two waste induced blazes and five small outside fires.

The department seized 300 pounds of illegal fireworks this past July and has increased its presence in neighborhoods where fireworks are reported the most. A total of 464 calls were received during the Fourth of July period last year, while a total of 1,946 online reports were submitted from which 161 were deemed “actionable.”

Sapien said improving the online tool so that users can accurately report a complaint with a potential tutorial video may help make the process more efficient, in addition to increasing the number of public safety officers when suspected fireworks use might be high. The chief also suggested continuous education and outreach to help curb the use and sale of illegal fireworks.

The City Council will meet 1:30 p.m. Tuesday inside the council chamber at City Hall, 200 East Santa Clara Street in San Jose.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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