Perry: San Jose’s homeless solution is just smoke and mirrors
RVs parked near Columbus Park in San Jose. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan put out a statement on April 16 claiming the emergency interim housing he’s promoting is “a real solution to the human suffering we see on our streets.” However, a closer examination of the figures shows he’s grossly exaggerating the impact.

    In his recent budget message, Mahan pushed for completion of 1,000 interim homes—counting the 400 already built—by the end of 2023. City reports indicate that in reality, only 800 will be completed by the end of 2024, not 2023.

    Mahan’s claim that “each unit helps stabilize an average of three people per year” implies San Jose could quickly get some 3,000 of the city’s 4,975 unsheltered unhoused people off the streets within a year of when the 1,000 homes are built. His goal of identifying sites for an additional 1,000 emergency interim homes after the completion of the first 1,000 indeed makes it seem like his strategy will make “ending San Jose’s era of encampments” an actual possibility.

    However, these optimistic figures do not add up. By his own account, only about half the people who get into interim housing are able to move on to permanent housing. That means out of the 3,000 he expects to serve in 2024, only 1,500 will get into permanent housing. In the Mountain View emergency interim housing program that began in 2021, only 26% of participants have moved into permanent housing.

    In addition, Mahan’s projection that each interim home could serve three people in a year implies an average four-month stay per participant. This is grossly unrealistic. To expect someone to move from living unsheltered in the streets into a situation where they can afford to pay median Silicon Valley rents in four months is not reasonable. A recent study recommends three to six-month stays for “low acuity” emergency interim housing residents and eight to 12 months for “higher acuity” people.

    If a realistic length of stay is considered, now the 1,500 people Mahan thinks he can house in a year are reduced to about 750. And remember he will not even have the 1,000 homes he’s dreaming of in 2024—only about 500 will be completed by April, and only 700 total after that. So that reduces the number we can expect to be housed down to about 425.

    Finally, there is another key factor in the equation. City and county data show every time we house one unhoused family, another 1.7 families become homeless for the first time. So when we house Mahan’s 425 people in 2024, we can expect another 720 or so to become unhoused. Mahan cannot effectively address homelessness if he refuses to even ask why these new people are continually becoming unhoused. If he did, he would find out that the real cause of homelessness is unaffordable rents.

    This is not to say we should not build emergency interim housing. It’s an important part of the solution. However, there are still far too few of these homes to meet the need, and without permanent housing available to move into, people remain at risk of returning to the streets. What’s absolutely wrong is what Mahan is doing: promoting emergency interim housing as a kind of magical solution that will make homelessness disappear.

    What’s even worse is it creates a narrative that effectively blames unhoused people for their situation, and sets them up for police sweeps and criminalization. The real cause of homelessness is the monumental failure by economic and political leaders to address the housing crisis. San Jose fell 15,000 homes short of meeting its affordable housing goals between 2014-22, but the mayor is not talking about this, and in fact is proposing reducing city funding for affordable housing.

    “We pretend that people who have experienced homelessness have some deficit, like there’s something wrong with them, and if only we can fix them, we can solve this problem,” said Dr. Margot Kushel of UCSF Benioff Housing and Homelessness Initiative. “But that’s not what the problem is. The problem is that there’s no housing.”

    Sandy Perry is president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. He wrote this as part of a project with Students Against Sweeps at San Jose State University.

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