Advocates rally to use Santa Clara County Fairgrounds to tackle homelessness
Residents line up in cars to get tested for COVID-19 at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. A group of local advocates wants the county to use some of the space to address homelessness. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    A coalition of advocates is pushing for Santa Clara County to open up 157 acres of public land on Tully Road to provide safe parking, encampments and services to those without a home amid an exploding homelessness crisis.

    The Santa Clara County Fairgrounds has been underutilized for years, as county officials attempted to revitalize it through different initiatives. In 2019, the Board of Supervisors voted to explore and evaluate a long list of options, including a cricket field, a county park, a hotel and a baseball stadium, among others—with a vision to create a space for public events and recreation.

    The plan has yielded little movement so far. The county just entered negotiations this past June with the San Jose Earthquakes for a practice field and American Cricket Enterprises for a future stadium. The area is managed by Fairgrounds Management Corporation through a contract with the county. The facility still hosts events like weddings, dog training and off-track horse betting. The betting facility generated $856,976 from April 29 through October, with 4,000 visitors just in November.

    For a group of local advocates and those who have experienced homelessness, they see the barren grounds as a perfect candidate for a massive transitional housing site to lift thousands off the streets.

    “We are in a humanitarian crisis, and what is the purpose of the fairgrounds really?” Todd Langton, who’s spearheading the effort to turn the fairgrounds into a service hub for the unhoused, told San José Spotlight. “Right now it’s sitting empty, and it checks all the boxes for what we need.”

    The site has enough space for a safe parking site, encampments and eventually transitional housing, Langton said. Existing infrastructure, such as the Pavilion Hall, could serve as a crisis center where people could get medical, substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training and other social services.

    The fairgrounds is already fenced off, which would allow the county to ensure security, and the site is located on a major VTA route, making it accessible, said Virginia Becker, another homeless advocate who supports the effort.

    Santa Clara County doesn’t have to postpone its development plans, she said. Those plans will take years to come to fruition. The fairgrounds should be used to address people’s needs now.

    “If they really want to, they can set this up in a week,” Becker said, adding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency already has an emergency manual that lays out the necessary steps for such crisis centers.

    The site would follow a village model that has successfully housed hundreds of people in Austin, Texas since 2015, they added.

    The Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on March 31, 2020 as officials work to make a temporary homeless shelter on the site during the COVID-19 pandemic. File photo courtesy of  The 111th Group aerial photography.

    Support grows

    The proposal emerges as Silicon Valley continues to reckon with its failure to have a grasp on a growing homelessness crisis. More people are dying on the streets each year. In 2021 that number grew to 250 deaths. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to upend people’s lives, residents are falling through safety nets and into homelessness, as camps across the city have grown significantly in size and visibility. Meanwhile, the area still suffers from a crippling housing shortage, and interim housing isn’t coming online fast enough.

    The coalition started an online petition two weeks ago, which has collected roughly 1,000 signatures in support. Langton said Supervisor Otto Lee and San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan have expressed support for the plan.

    “I’ve been vocal about using underutilized public lands across the county, including the fairgrounds, to address our homelessness crisis at scale,” Mahan, who announced his mayoral run at the fairgrounds, told San José Spotlight. “I believe that government has a responsibility to provide basic, safe and secure shelter to those who need it, and that individuals have a responsibility to use when provided.”

    In September, Mahan, who represents District 10, proposed a plan to work with the county to turn the fairgrounds into a large scale housing site, among other initiatives. The city squashed the proposals.

    Lee was not available for a comment.

    The idea to open up the fairgrounds for the unhoused population is not new. In 2019, a Willow Glen resident brought up a similar proposal for the county’s consideration. Her idea was also shot down, despite gaining support from roughly 1,600 residents.

    “All together, there are at least 2,600 people who want to see this happen,” Becker said. “Citizens own the fairgrounds. The county needs to listen to its citizens.”

    Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who led the 2019 efforts to revitalize the fairgrounds, was not available for comment.

    When the pandemic hit, the fairgrounds turned into a temporary medical facility and then a shelter for homeless residents at risk of getting sick. Dozens of unhoused residents also moved into the RV park at the fairgrounds as the pandemic began. Currently it serves as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site and testing site.

    Langton said the county and city are not doing enough to address the urgency.

    “Give us 30 acres, 20 acres, even 10 and let us get started,” he said. “We can still salvage this issue.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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