Downtown San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez was headed for dinner with his wife and son this past weekend when a homeless man threatened to “kick his ass.”
“And this is (in front of) my 2-year-old kid,” he said.
It’s the latest incident amid recent backlash from residents about the growth of homeless encampments in San Jose, as well as vandalism and theft they say is threatening their livelihood. A recent San José Spotlight story revealed how some business owners in the district are pressuring Peralez to clear encampments, calling homeless people “parasites” and “heathens.”
Now, Peralez is calling for the city to address homelessness by prioritizing vaccinations for the unhoused community, resuming abatements of encampments and establishing a temporary sanctioned encampment for the duration of the local state of emergency.
The City Council’s Rules and Open Government committee on Wednesday unanimously approved Peralez’s proposal to work with the county to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for homeless residents.
Although supply of COVID-19 vaccine is limited in Santa Clara County, Peralez said 37% of the city’s most chronically homeless individuals have chronic health problems and contracting COVID-19 could be deadly.
Homeless encampments in San Jose have grown because the Centers for Disease Control and Santa Clara County health department prohibit sweeps during the pandemic unless people living there can be transferred to housing. Exceptions are made, however, if the county determines that the encampment poses a health or safety risk.
Peralez acknowledged that sweeps don’t solve homelessness, but said something has to be done.
“But at the same time, the lack of managing the unsanctioned encampments out there brings with it a whole new host of challenges and issues,” Peralez said. “Not just for our housed community or businesses that are in the area, but also our unhoused communities.”
A sanctioned encampment, he said, could be the solution. It would keep homeless residents safe while the city works to expand its housing programs. He urged the city to vaccinate unhoused residents while they are “easy to locate” and gathered in their current encampments.
A legal encampment is critical if the city resumes abatements during COVID-19, he added in a memo, because it provides a dedicated place for homeless people to “safely relocate while eliminating the constant worry of being uprooted.”
Councilmember David Cohen also voiced support for sanctioned encampments for homeless residents.
“We have to treat them with respect and make sure we take care of our homeless neighbors,” he said. “But we also need to find solutions that are going to take care of our communities.”
Peralez noted that because the city cannot dismantle encampments during the pandemic, several successful long-term encampments already exist and suggested the model could be sustainable. “We have seen that if we provide a basic level of services in some of these encampments,” he said, “that we can maintain them and manage them.”
Homeless advocate Gail Osmer agreed.
“Establishing sanctioned encampments is the only way to keep our unhoused folks safe,” Osmer said, adding that many unhoused residents prefer not to live in shelters because of unsafe living conditions and fear of contracting COVID-19 in an enclosed space.
The councilmember’s proposals to resume abatements and establish a sanctioned encampment will be rolled into the city manager’s report on encampments in March.
The committee also unanimously approved Peralez’s proposal for the city to reaffirm its support for Laura’s Law.
Laura’s Law is a California state law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for individuals with severe untreated mental illness and a history of violence or repeated hospitalization. The policy requires patients to accept treatment as a condition of living in the community.
“The reality is that on a voluntary basis, (our current system) does not work for everybody,” Peralez said. “We have an outcome where we just continue to release people out on the streets when a treatment doesn’t work for them.”
The treatment is intended for individuals who meet a very narrowly-defined criteria and who have been noncompliant with treatment. Typically, it’s only used until the patient is well enough to maintain their own treatment regiment.
Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime homeless advocate, said that the county should improve its current support services before taking residents into custody for treatment. She believes the county’s current mental health services are “inadequate.”
Another issue, she said, is the lack of quality supportive services for homeless people, including at Second Street Studios in downtown San Jose.
“We keep asking you to use more providers, and you don’t,” she said. “And then you sit there and say, ‘we tried.’ And then it’s the unhoused people who suffer because of this.”
Peralez previously advocated with former Councilmember Johnny Khamis for the county to adopt the law in 2019, but was met with opposition from county lawmakers and officials.
So far, 19 California counties have adopted the law. According to a report from the California Department of Health Care services, the program reported a reduction in violent behavior by 64%, homelessness by 30%, hospitalization by 33% and contact with law enforcement by 46%.
Prior to starting the program, 129 participants in San Francisco cost the city $485,000 monthly in services. That number was reduced to $81,745 per month once they entered.
“Implementing Laura’s Law, in my mind, would serve as a bridge to recovery and a way to stop that revolving door of just (repeated) hospitalization, homelessness, in-and-out of jail that we’ve seen in so many people,” Peralez said.
Sheila Tran can be contacted at [email protected]