Bramson: Wasting our breath in times of need
Piles of trash lay beside a dumpster behind the fenced-off area of a homeless encampment in North San Jose Monday. Photo by Vicente Vera.

With tens of thousands of people on sleeping our streets every night, I’m amazed at how much energy we expend either fighting common sense solutions or pushing for or against issues that won’t really move the needle in the end.

Take the new safe parking site in North San Jose for instance. The city provided an empty lot to create a space for a few homeless people to safely sleep for the night in their vehicles. This is not revolutionary or game-changing work. It’s just a simple fix to an existing challenge that was done quickly to help people now.

Yet, within days, there were neighbors protesting the program with picket signs right in front of the people who already have to endure the daily horror of not having a safe place to call home. It got so bad that advocates had to organize a counter-protest in a sign of solidarity for people who are just trying to get a good night’s rest.

Up in the City by the Bay, it’s not much better. There, San Francisco staff had already been using a hotel for temporary housing during the pandemic. The program had been working well and the owners were willing to sell the property to the city to make it a permanent location. And with the recent release of Project HomeKey 2.0 – a state-funded opportunity that allow for the purchase and conversion of hotels, motels and other properties to create more housing for vulnerable people quickly – this could happen soon, with no red tape and considerable leveraged funding from the state.

But the moment it was proposed, eruptions of opposition. And it came from all sides. Apparently, no one wanted the homeless people, who were already living there, to be able to stay for the long-term. An elected official, historically an ally to affordable housing, went so far as to call the debate a “zero-sum game.” Keep in mind, on one end of this “game” there’s unsubstantiated complaints and fearmongering and the other is real housing for people in need. When the noise gets too loud, everyone can get lost in the confusion of hyperbole, exaggeration and fear.

And speaking of noise, let’s not forget the recent policy debate around the elimination of single-family zoning right here in our own backyard. It really doesn’t matter what side of the fray you fall on in this heated battle, the bottom line is that we’re talking about a pretty simple land use change already occurring in places around the country that makes sense in a time of housing scarcity.

That’s it. But collectively we’re willing to go to war over this policy decision. Online campaigns, opposition groups, neighborhood meetings… all for a change that people wouldn’t even really notice if it went into effect today. And, by the way, the state is about to pass a bill  that will effectively make this choice for us.

In the next year, there are several critical items coming before City Council that can help to reduce homelessness, fund more deeply affordable housing and open up precious new residential land opportunities in our city. Yet we still choose to fight, complain, pander and delay, where we should instead just make the decision quickly for the greatest possible good and get on with the important work ahead.

Maybe it’s the recall, or the pandemic, or the daily struggle of trying to move simple things forward, but I think the time is now for us to set differences aside and let the work of helping people happen. Otherwise, we’re all going to end up out of breath and with no place to go.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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