When the city evicted a group of tenants from a cluster of mobile homes in south San Jose, Santa Clara County put them up in a hotel within a day. Getting this treatment doesn’t come easy, though—you pretty much need to have your house condemned.
That’s what happened to several individuals who lost their homes overnight after inspectors from San Jose’s code enforcement department deemed their units uninhabitable and dangerous because of exposed electrical wires, extension cords used as permanent wiring and propane tanks feeding gas into the homes. After the eviction, the county put two families in a hotel where they have housing for the next month.
Consuelo Hernandez, director of the Office of Supportive Housing for Santa Clara County, told San José Spotlight that her office is required to provide relocation assistance to tenants evicted by code enforcement officials due to unsafe or hazardous conditions.
“We work with them to figure out a relocation plan, and if in the event they have to red-tag and people have to move out immediately, we work with them to provide housing,” Hernandez said. In this case, San Jose agreed to reimburse the county for the cost of putting the tenants in a hotel, she said. Property owners are responsible for providing relocation payments.
But code enforcement-related evictions are relatively rare, Hernandez added. For people not in imminent danger from faulty wiring or a gas leak, getting immediate relocation assistance can be much more difficult.
Homeless individuals seeking a bed must call the county’s shelter hotline, which in the experience of some activists is not always effective at putting a person on the path toward permanent housing.
Shaunn Cartwright, a homeless activist and founder of the Unhoused Response Group, told San José Spotlight that if an unhoused individual doesn’t know someone in the Office of Supportive Housing who they can contact directly, the chance of getting immediate help is slim.
“Usually what happens, it takes a couple days and a couple phone calls. If you’re in an emergency situation, you don’t have time to go back and forth,” Cartwright said. “When it doesn’t happen, you can’t figure out a rhyme or reason.”
Cartwright said she’s communicated extensively with the county about problems associated with the hotline for housing assistance. But she’s also concerned that people in temporary shelter often lack a clear path for where to go next.
As an example, she said there is a shelter in Sunnyvale hosting dozens of people, and at the moment only one has a non-emergency housing voucher that will help them find a semi-permanent dwelling.
“In all honesty, it means they’re just going to sit there and rot,” Cartwright said. “If you have a voucher, at least it means you can look for housing.”
Homeless activist Scott Largent said in his experience, motel vouchers are a dead-end street, even when the option expanded during the pandemic with Project Roomkey, a statewide campaign to provide hotel rooms to thousands of homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic subsidized by FEMA.
“We tried a lot to get these vouchers or people into the ‘Project Roomkey’ and it never materialized,” Largent told San José Spotlight. “The person had to be damn near dead to accept them.”
Earlier this year, the county denied a hotel room to San Jose resident Anthony Domondon, even though he suffers from congestive heart failure, diabetes and HIV. County officials told him that homeless people under 60 need at least four pre-existing conditions to get a hotel room.
Hernandez said the Office of Supportive Housing launched a program last year that helps families find temporary shelter at motels. She also noted that a silver lining of COVID-19 is that the county centralized its hotline for shelter placements during the pandemic, which streamlines the process of connecting people with temporary beds because they don’t have to call multiple numbers.
Hernandez said she believes 48 hours is the longest somebody has had to wait for a shelter bed.
But advocates argue that even a short period on the street is dangerous.
“Going onto the streets, that’s a death sentence,” said Scott Wagers, founder of the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry, which provides services to unhoused people in San Jose. “I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s a dramatic issue, and I see it every day.”
Wagers added that the city and county seem capable of mobilizing housing resources quickly whenever there’s sufficient public pressure.
“We got vouchers from the city and county whenever we’d protest or put pressure through the media and generate public interest,” Wagers said. “All of a sudden they found money.”
Hernandez stressed that while there’s limited resources available for people seeking shelter in Santa Clara County, residents in need of a place to stay or food can contact the hotline for help. Long-term solutions are being worked on, but they take time, she added.
“There’s so many homeless people, and only certain resources that we have,” Hernandez said.
For more information on services, call the Santa Clara County homeless hotline at (408) 278-6420.