Despite my five-year effort to educate the public and lobby the county Board of Supervisors to implement Laura’s Law, with the support of my colleagues on the San Jose City Council, county leaders failed to move this law forward on Jan. 28.
Laura’s Law is a temporary, court-supervised, involuntary conservatorship law that would help some of the most vulnerable mentally ill people on our streets. While it will help a small number of the overall population of unhoused people, that handful are the most severely mentally ill, have had several interactions with law enforcement and have the biggest effect on our community’s quality of life. Laura’s Law has been implemented in neighboring counties and is producing positive outcomes for both the homeless and for taxpayers, and Santa Clara County is missing an opportunity to help those who are unable to get help for themselves.
Despite this disappointment, it was satisfying to see that, after many years without significant, focused action, the county made some progress, such as approving the O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals as clinical service sites for homeless individuals who need medical treatment, and enhancement of mental health services at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Countywide, voters approved Measure A, a $950 million affordable housing tax, to fund 120 new housing developments in Santa Clara County, including 4,800 units for extremely low-income individuals and families at risk of homelessness.
Concern remains, however, that the county is not looking at quicker, more easily implemented, and less costly ways to house the unhoused. One strategy that San Jose has utilized is to refurbish older buildings, like the Plaza Hotel, into transitional housing. Refurbishing existing spaces is quicker and cheaper than planning, designing and building new transitional housing.
The county previously passed up $20 million in foundation funds to put with $50 million in taxpayer funds to help convert the old City Hall Annex building into 150 units of homeless housing and they’re now looking to spend twice the money for nearly half the number of beds. I encourage them not to make that mistake again, when it comes to the existing jail structure. Instead of demolishing the building, they should seriously consider remodeling it into up to 674 beds for the unhoused. Building 674 beds of new transitional housing elsewhere would cost upwards of $404 million.
Additionally, the county ought to consider housing uses for the underutilized fairgrounds that have seen three revitalization efforts dating back to 1998 fizzle out (a fourth plan, released back in October, would see it become a “grand public space,” but I’m not holding my breath). The county is encouraged to consider buying existing buildings, even new ones, to address the housing crisis more quickly.
Our residents, and our unhoused, deserve a more urgent response to the crisis of homelessness. I call on the county to revisit Laura’s Law and to find ways to get people into transitional housing faster, and at a lower cost to taxpayers.
Johnny Khamis is a San Jose councilmember first elected in 2012 to represent District 10, which spans Almaden and Blossom valleys.