San Jose business leader floats big ideas about homelessness
San Jose Downtown Executive Director Scott Knies speaks at an Apr. 28, 2021 news conference regarding downtown small businesses. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

One of San Jose’s largest business groups wants homeless people off its streets, and here’s it’s pitch to make that happen.

San Jose Downtown Association Executive Director Scott Knies floated the idea of creating a social services team to focus on the homeless population.

“What is clear to all of us in the trenches is a failure to provide workable solutions for the significant homeless population deemed ‘service resistant,'” Knies said Friday. “These individuals, whether they suffer from psychosis, substance abuse or preferring their lifestyle as urban outdoorsmen, do not fit easily into the community plan to end homelessness. There undeniably needs to be another plan.”

The association already has a team called Groundwerx Ambassadors who escort people who feel unsafe while walking downtown. These ambassadors also work with the downtown homeless population, which numbers between 125 to 200 people according to the association’s count, to connect them with city and county resources. By enhancing the social service team, Knies said the association could provide greater outreach to the homeless in need of mental health resources.

The association manages a unique agreement with downtown residents called the Property-Based Improvement District, or PBID. As part of the PBID, commercial and residential property owners pay for downtown cleaning and beautification projects, such as the association’s Groundwerx team. The proposed social services team would be funded by those fees.

Knies’ idea would connect homeless individuals to resources such as the city’s encampment program—Services, Outreach, Assistance and Resources, or SOAR—and the San Jose Police Department and the county’s Mobile Crisis Response Teams.

The association hopes the county’s recent passage of opting into Laura’s Law will help those with severe mental illness living on the streets. The program provides mental health services under a court-ordered mandate.

The enhancement of social services is still in its early stages and its budget and scope haven’t been developed. However, the association hopes to have a clearer idea once its Board of Directors, which includes property owners in the downtown area, weighs in. The idea isn’t to provide case management, association officials said, but rather to connect homeless people to mental health resources.

“Innovation is absolutely necessary for the next 10 years for the district,” Chloe Shipp, the downtown association’s director of public space operations, told San José Spotlight. “With a social impact team, we can be a little more intentional and stay with an unhoused person and try and help her through whatever questions she has—and then make a much warmer handoff.”

Existing services 

Due to an “alarming” rate of mental health calls, the San Jose Police Department in March created a Mobile Crisis Response Team, or MCRT.  The team consists of two sergeants and eight officers. The officers wear gray sweatshirts—instead of traditional police uniforms—along with their duty belts to help de-escalate situations.  The county already has its own MCRT made of up licensed clinicians and therapists.

Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the city’s housing department,  said the association and the city have not discussed a collaboration with the San Jose Police department’s MCRT and the county’s on mobile crisis unit.

The association is seeking a licensed clinical social worker to lead the team, which will also include people who have experienced homelessness.

The current PBID agreement expires next year. The PBID board and renewal steering committee, as well as member feedback, will shape the final management plan of the new district, including the final structure of the social impact team.

The PBID is in the process of renewal. A new agreement is expected to start in July 2022.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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