San Jose rejects sanctioned homeless encampments
At least four separate homeless encampments sit along the sidewalk just outside William L. Sheppard Middle School in East San Jose. Parents say the sidewalk is a common route for children who walk to and from school. Photo by Vicente Vera.

The San Jose City Council won’t be authorizing sanctioned encampments like advocates had hoped for.

Councilmembers voted unanimously Tuesday to reject a sanctioned homeless encampment plan.

Sanctioned encampments are designated places where homeless people could live and gather without fear of being cleared out. The city would provide sanitation and hygiene services such as portable toilets and trash pickups.

The most recent biennial homeless census in San Jose recorded 6,172 homeless individuals citywide in 2019—an increase of 1,822 over 2017. There are nearly 10,000 homeless people in the county.

Amanda, who didn’t give her last name, said during a video presentation that she’s lived in encampments for 11 years. She said she was harassed multiple times.

“I feel like a sanctioned camp is a step up for most people,” she said. “Stability is a good thing, and I am pro stability.”

Though the encampment plan was rejected, councilmembers agreed to stop clearing encampments on short notice. Instead, the city will give encampment residents a notice of at least 60 days. Previously, the city swept encampments with little notice, causing residents to scramble to grab their belongings, only to come back to the area later.

According to Ragan Henninger, deputy director in the housing department, the city spent $57 million on homeless programs in 2020—$42 million more than in 2019. Much of that money is temporary funding related to COVID-19 that will not be renewed once the pandemic is over.

In March, elected officials voted to limit where encampments could be located, banning them from being near schools and childcare centers—using the same distance standards that keep bars and cannabis dispensaries away from children.

Homeless advocates say sanctioned encampments would ensure that hazards such as fires would be easier to address.

“No number of sweeps and no amount of police activity will make people disappear,” said Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

Councilmembers, including Matt Mahan, authored a memo that proposed different scenarios for encampments, such as setbacks from sensitive public spaces and delivering basic services that was considered, but ultimately wasn’t implemented with the vote.

Mahan said he supports testing how well the city can manage a homeless encampment, finding out how expensive it is and if it’s better than tiny homes, emergency housing or other low-cost approaches to safe and secure shelter. He suggested using the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds as a sanctioned encampment location. A large encampment of mobile homes already exists near the fairgrounds, which has led to a battle over whether or not the RV community there should be forced out or allowed to stay.

“I think everyone in our community deserves at least sanitation and hygienic resources,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “At a minimum, the city ought to supply porta-potties, handwashing stations and routine trash removal for every encampment in the city just as a way to enable everyone to coexist with a minimum level of dignity.”

Mahan said he’s worried that if the city tries to provide a broader set of services initially, it will become too expensive and unwieldy to implement. Although he supports sanctioned encampments, he said they are legally challenging for the city and that expanding SOAR and street-based services are the best way forward.

“There are concerns with the city legally sanctioning a space,” Mahan said. “We are responsible then to our land use policies and may become liable for public safety in those areas.”

City officials shared concerns that they don’t have the capacity to carry out sanctioned encampments. According to Henninger, five people deal with homeless issues at the city’s housing department.

Mayor Sam Liccardo pointed to numbers Henninger provided on Tuesday showing the city moved 3,000 homeless people off the streets since the pandemic began. Liccardo cautioned against chasing ideas the city hasn’t tried yet, and instead “double down on what works.”

“We need to acknowledge that we’re not trying the same things. We’re trying a lot of new things, and we’re trying them rapidly,” Liccardo said. “We don’t need to put our hand in the flame because we got lots of other innovative programs and we know some of these are working. We just need the resources and staff and attention to actually scale them.”

Some residents are frustrated with the city’s response. They say the city waited too long to house the homeless, which exacerbated issues such as illegal dumping and public safety.

“The situation is dire and urgent. We need action, not more analysis,” said Felicia Gershberg, co-lead of mutual aid group Together We Will. “We need to think about the day-to-day lives of our unsheltered neighbors.”

Elected officials shared some of that frustration, including Councilmember Maya Esparza who urged her colleagues to find areas within their own districts for sanctioned encampments should they want to move the issue forward.

“I feel like we’re not having a lot of real conversations about this,” Esparza said. “Only two of my colleagues have ever offered a location in their district for sanctioned encampments,” referring to Councilmembers Dev Davis and Raul Peralez.

“For folks that are proposing this, be real for a second,” she added. “Offer a site in your district. Say what you’re willing to give up so we can do this.”

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

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story reported the city will do additional analysis on sanctioned encampments. The approved decision does not include analysis.

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