San Jose business group floats fee for homeless trash solutions
Trash is piled up along Coleman Avenue in downtown San Jose in this file photo Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Fed up with trash and vandalism downtown, one San Jose business group wants to lobby the city and county to help with its cleanup efforts.

Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, a consortium of businesses located in the heart of the city, floated what he calls a “clean community fee” on Friday. He wants to set aside approximately 10% of the budget of all city or county homeless programs and apply those funds toward cleaning up public spaces.

The association hopes local government can implement the fee before funds from the American Rescue Plan run out and the city has to look for more money. Money from the fee could pay for additional services or help repair storefronts when homeless individuals cause damage, such as burning doorways or vandalizing property.

Knies said the fee can be used to provide the city with additional cleanup services similar to the association’s Groundwerx program, paid for with funds from the city and downtown association. The program employs low-income and unhoused residents to help clean downtown San Jose. With more funds, the association believes similar programs can be placed around the city.

The city has also funded other cleanup programs, such as San Jose Bridge, an initiative that employs homeless residents to pick up trash. The program recently expanded through 2023 thanks to $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan funding and local monies. But American Rescue Plan dollars aren’t infinite—the association’s clean community fee, however, looks to sustain itself even after those funds are gone.

Knies says the idea for the fee is in its early stages, and he hasn’t reached out to city or county officials for details yet. The effort is part of a push to stop homeless individuals who the association says are resistant to services. According to Knies, camera footage has caught some of these individuals causing damage, such as breaking windows.

“We’re going to have to continue to maintain those public areas,” Knies told San José Spotlight. “Isn’t it fair that we have a source of funding so we can maintain them?”

Knies proposed the idea at the association’s annual State of the Downtown meeting which reviewed the business group’s progress during the COVID-19 pandemic to alleviate the homeless crisis downtown. He also criticized the city for not doing more to clean up encampments during the pandemic—something the city first did, then abandoned per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s an intriguing idea, and something we should definitely discuss further,” Councilmember Dev Davis, whose district includes portions of downtown, told San José Spotlight. “I completely agree that safety and cleanliness are key to a vibrant downtown and a thriving economy in San Jose.”

An April San José Spotlight report highlighted how the city has led or participated in 98 homeless sweeps across the city since October 2020—despite guidance from the CDC to leave homeless camps alone amid COVID-19—and how the city created a revolving door for residents who end up back in encampments a few weeks later.

“San Jose took a step backward during the pandemic when we stopped abating encampments and relinquished many public spaces—parks, sidewalks, creeks, freeways—to fall into squalid, disgraceful condition,” Knies said to members of the San Jose Downtown Association. “Without sanitation, garbage cans or toilets, the camps are often rampant with feces, urine, needles, trash and rats.”

Though the clean community fee might sound like a good idea, it’s giving some local homeless advocates second thoughts. According to Shaunn Cartwright, a homeless advocate who regularly visits encampments around Silicon Valley, there’s a deeper issue at hand: Making sure unhoused residents aren’t just used for labor.

“I have an issue with these programs that routinely equate unhoused people with trash,” Cartwright told San José Spotlight. “There should be some cycle where that’s broken.”

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

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