San Jose City Council adds encampments, COVID recovery to its priority list
A resident is pictured at one of the encampments near Story Road in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The San Jose City Council picked its new priorities Monday—deciding what topics to focus staff time on from many proposals delayed by the pandemic, including items to regulate the use of surveillance technologies to allowing marijuana dispensaries in retail centers.

Two items rose to the top: implementing a plan to help deal with the city’s many homeless encampments and a series of COVID-related initiatives focused on pandemic recovery.

Other proposals that won high marks but didn’t make the top two include a plan to help the city’s retail sector and a proposal to update the city’s wage theft policy.

The top two priorities will be added to an already-existing list of priorities for the council to tackle in the next financial year, which begins July 1.

A photo of the spreadsheet presented by city staff to the city council showing what priorities received the most votes. Photo courtesy Matt Mahan/Carly Wipf.

Encampments

“We need to a better job of protecting sensitive spaces including private residences and public spaces like parks and creeks and schools,” said Councilman Matt Mahan, who first proposed changing the city’s approach to encampments in a February newsletter. “But something like 6,000 people every day are living on our streets. Without better managing their living conditions, it’s terrible for them and the broader community.”

At Monday’s meeting, each councilmember was given 10 points to allocate to their top 10 priorities. Councilmembers were not allowed to give more than one point to each priority. Multiple priorities were merged with each other to form one broad priority if staff and the council determined the priorities were similar enough.

Santa Clara County’s biennial homeless count in 2019 estimated there were 6,100 homeless residents in San Jose—a number that could actually be higher since it doesn’t include those affected by the COVID-induced recession. In the report, homeless individuals identified six main reasons they lost housing: Lost employment, alcohol or drug abuse, a divorce or breakup, an eviction, an argument with family or friends or incarceration. A plurality of 38% responded they lived outside, while others reported they lived out of their cars or in shelters.

This year’s homeless count has been canceled due to COVID-19.

COVID recovery

The second priority proposed broad support initiatives for businesses and residents whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19. The first part of the initiative seeks to establish a COVID-19 recovery task force, which will oversee and implement business and housing strategies for residents to recover from the economic impact of the virus.

Also part of the priority is a proposal to make the city’s al fresco ordinance permanent. First implemented in May, the plan officially called San Jose Al Fresco, allows businesses such as salons, cafes, gyms, yoga studios and other retailers to set up shop outside in public spaces, including parking lots, parks, alleys, plazas and streets. The program was set to expire at the end of 2020 but was extended until at least March 31.

“The Al Fresco program has been a huge savior,” said Rodney Baca, owner of The Shop by Chef Baca, a restaurant located inside San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose. Baca said it made it easier for restaurants to deal with lost revenue from delivery apps. His restaurants, he said, have also struggled with less foot traffic. “It’s been a conundrum because we want to do certain things at our restaurants, but we really have to value  the health and well-being of our citizens.”

Not far from San Pedro Square, Jerry Wang, the owner of Paper Moon Café on North Second Street, has had a tougher time trusting the city with COVID-related aid. A former Marine, he said he’s exhausted what little veteran federal aid he received and has been at the mercy of local, state and federal grant and loan applications to help his business.

According to Wang, business has been down at least 80%.

“In reality, all the things that were promised before back in December, promising that we’d get help—it’s already March,” Wang said. “As far as I can tell, none of the promises from the local, federal and state government has never come through.”

The rest of the priorities that received votes on Monday will be moved to the top of a new priority list for future consideration.

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

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