Editorial: Use old San Jose City Hall for one-stop homeless services
The Old San Jose City Hall building on North First Street. Photo by Jana Kadah.

In a week’s span, two decisions were made that on the surface had absolutely no correlation. Yet in a circuitous way, they did.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to authorize an additional $1 million to the Vietnamese American Service Center. The center which opened last October is a phenomenal success. The new three-story 37,000-square-foot building provides the Vietnamese community with a one-stop-shop of services for physical and mental health and dental care, daily nutritious meals for seniors and a community gathering center for events and activities. It’s an integrated lifestyle approach.

A little more than 5 miles away another decision was made. The Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission denied an application to demolish the old City Hall on N. 1st Street. Instead the commissioners punted the decision to the supervisors. A situation the county has been wrestling with since 2019, after demolishing the annex portion of the property a year earlier.

So here is how these two seemingly unrelated decisions intersect.

The five-story, 113,430-square-foot building may be old, but it could be repurposed using the same one-stop-service model as the Vietnamese center. Only in this case integrated services would be for the homeless population.

Of course this population is different and it’s not without its challenges, but a large part of the problem is lack of centralization and easy access. The former City Hall offers a solution.

This demographic needs physical, medical and mental health services. They need housing and legal assistance. Some need re-entry help after leaving the county jail, which happens to be right next door, along with the county’s judicial system.

Nonprofits like Sacred Heart Community CenterPATH, Destination:Home, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and even the county behavioral health department could have satellite offices in the building. A kitchen and cafeteria could be built to serve hot nutritious meals. Clothes could be distributed. Showers could be installed. Haircuts could be offered, basic hygiene needs.

The location is steps away from the light rail and other public transit services. It’s ideal, considering a large portion of unhoused people live near the downtown. Plus, the county has already planted a flag here, with a 25-unit tiny home community tucked behind the former City Hall.

The concept fits into Supervisor Joe Simitian’s desire to develop a navigation system for those in need of mental health services. The former City Hall has ample space for multiple services, giving the county a chance to restructure the disjointed, complicated system of services that now exist.

This approach is compatible with Supervisor Susan Ellenberg’s efforts to provide a full menu of supportive services. The idea is in accord with Supervisor Cindy Chavez’s vision of integrated services. She cites the Vietnamese center as model for other facilities to follow.

So how about it?

County officials argue that repurposing the building would cost $100 million. Well, since we are talking about a one-stop-service model that needs offices, this certainly would be a fit. That’s how it was designed. That’s certainly not a $100 million remodel if the county repurposes property with a compatible, existing design, even if a kitchen, cafeteria and showers were added.

If uncertainty is still a factor, consider the 2012 study, done over a six-year period — Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley — that concluded the community’s cost of $520 million for not addressing the homeless problem. Since then, we’ve had a pandemic and homelessness has increased, with more than 10,000 people living on the streets.

Even County Executive Jeff Smith was quoted in a 2011 Mercury News article after the county purchased the property saying, “We didn’t buy a pig in a poke.”

Well then, turning the former City Hall into a one-stop-service model for those in need puts the building back in business doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. After all, isn’t that what city halls were designed to do in the first place –meet the needs of their communities?

Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. She has more than 20 years of experience in Silicon Valley journalism, including roles as the editor for the Silicon Valley Business Journal and as a reporter and editor with the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Follow Moryt at @morytmilo on Twitter and catch up on her monthly editorials here

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