A coalition of San Jose residents are fuming that their elected leader left them out of discussions about a safe parking site for homeless individuals in their neighborhood.
An empty parking lot in North San Jose just south of Highway 237 holds at least four RVs and four unhoused residents after close to 70 people were swept from an encampment on a piece of Apple property earlier this month. The safe parking site at 71 Vista Montaña is for unhoused residents who turned down offers to stay in hotels and will remain open as part of a nine-month pilot program. The site, which opened Sept. 7, is supposed to hold up to 20 people.
Councilmember David Cohen helped establish the safe parking site in his district and put out a Sept. 3 statement to inform his constituents. In his statement, the recently-elected councilmember said the city looked at other sites for potential use, but the lot in his district was the only city-owned property that could be activated at the time.
But neighbors of the safe parking site say they found out about it days earlier through a NextDoor post. They have since dubbed the pilot program, “the experiment.”
‘The city had to have known about it’
While Cohen told residents they weren’t kept in the loop on the site because the city had little time to accommodate Apple’s Sept. 2 eviction date, the councilmember said in July he was familiar with the growing encampment on the tech company’s property.
“The reason they bypassed this public hearing, notification and planning process is because they call this an emergency,” resident Sheena Madan told San José Spotlight. “They call it an emergency, but this encampment has been on Apple land for a long time, and the city had to have known about it.”
The City Council agreed in May to give unhoused residents in San Jose at least 60 days notice before forcing them to leave an encampment, though this practice was not followed for the people living on Apple land.
After becoming increasingly concerned about the encampment of unhoused people in July, Cohen met with representatives of the tech giant to discuss solutions to the growing encampment.
It was shortly thereafter that Apple retained nonprofit housing provider HomeFirst for assistance—paying the Milpitas-based organization an unspecified amount of “millions” to book hotel rooms for 50 displaced unhoused residents, as well as for the creation of a safe parking site for those living in RVs.
Despite Apple’s investment, the site will be funded by the city with $400,000 to $500,000 from the latest COVID-19 stimulus package.
While HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton spoke to news organizations in stories published as recently as last week about Apple donating millions to her nonprofit in part for the safe parking site, she referred San José Spotlight’s request for comment to a city spokesperson.
A spokesperson for the city housing department did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the funding or planning of the safe parking site.
‘We need answers’
A software engineer by day, Madan and a coalition of neighbors say they’ve spent endless late nights researching the city’s decisions to declare their community fit for a safe parking site. They want to know if the city will hire more security to monitor the area, when the decision was made to open the site and if the city will consider moving it somewhere else.
“The site is safe and secure, we have a fence up, constant service and security monitoring everything out there,” said Lam Nguyen, a spokesperson for Cohen. “(The neighbors) are starting to realize there’s nothing happening out here. They’re starting to lose the wind in their sails, for lack of a better term.”
Stacey Brown, Cohen’s chief of staff, told San José Spotlight the councilmember wants to avoid scattering displaced unhoused residents across nearby neighborhoods.
More than 35 neighboring residents spoke at the Sept. 14 San Jose City Council meeting to admonish lawmakers over the safe parking site. One resident compared the RV encampment to the military prison Guantanamo Bay, falsely claiming the North San Jose site was surrounded by “razor wire” fencing.
“Someone had a contract with someone to spend money to actually put up the fence, but we weren’t being notified—that’s why people are really fired up,” said Bharat Ramakrishnan, president of the homeowners association at California Renaissance Townhomes next to the safe parking site. “Neighbors are concerned about the lack of transparency. We need answers.”
San Jose residents aren’t the only ones to take issue with the safe parking site. Santa Clara Councilmember Kathy Watanabe sent a email to Cohen earlier this month about the site, where she cited concerns about break-ins, catalytic converter thefts and fires at homeless camps.
Mayor Sam Liccardo spoke after public comment and said the safe parking site is not an experiment as some residents claim.
“We’ve actually had safe parking sites in other parts of the city,” Liccardo said. “We’ll do everything we can to operate them safely in a way that does not conflict with the reasonable expectations of the residents living in the community.”
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.