San Jose ends food program supporting homeless people
Shaunn Cartwright (right) and another Unhoused Response Group member distribute hot food for people living near the sprawling homeless camp near Columbus Park in February 2022. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San Jose is winding down a hot meals program that started during the COVID-19 pandemic, and homeless advocates worry people will go hungry.

The hot meals program, funded by the federal CARES Act, has helped feed homeless residents at encampments and motels throughout the pandemic that upended the lives of many in Silicon Valley. Nonprofits, food banks and churches in the region saw the need for food skyrocket during 2020. Some say the demand continues to rise.

The San Jose program is ending this month because federal funding has run out, and nothing has been established to replace it, city spokesperson Ed Bautista told San José Spotlight.

“There’s no longer the CARES Act,” Bautista said, adding Santa Clara County is often responsible for providing such services. “We’re looking to the county to provide leadership and any new plans (going forward).”

In March 2020, San Jose started paying Team San Jose, the city’s event planner and de facto tourism bureau, to help meet food insecurity needs. The meals program is part of a number of initiatives launched by the city during the early days of the pandemic. San Jose also helped with school meals and food for seniors.

Team San Jose has provided 5,000 to 7,000 meals every week under the program, costing at least $465,000 per quarter, Bautista said. The South Hall at the convention center also served as a temporary 200-bed homeless shelter for more than a year before closing down last summer.

Shaunn Cartwright, a co-founding member of Unhoused Response Group, said her group has relied on the city program to bring roughly 300 meals to different camps. She said the group’s weekly visits are located in areas with no other services.

“What are the thousands of people who rely on this food gonna do?” Cartwright told San José Spotlight, adding nonprofits such as Martha’s Kitchen and Lighthouse Ministries won’t be able to fill the gap with their current operations. “We routinely take food to people who haven’t eaten in over 24 hours.”

For Hello Angels Foundation, a local nonprofit that also delivers food to several homeless camps around the city, the end of San Jose’s hot meals program will be a big loss to more than 100 people the organizations serve weekly.

“(It) does not make a dent with the unhoused population, but it does help some of those who don’t know where their next meal will be coming from or any at all,” organizer Kelana Kelly L’Amora told San José Spotlight. “We knew that this program could only last so long, but I was hoping it would be a bit longer.”

San Jose saw its homeless population explode in 2019, when the city recorded 6,097 unhoused people. That number has jumped 11%—totaling 6,739 people—during the pandemic, according to a tally released this year. In 2020, the city launched a multi-pronged COVID-19 homeless response to help the vulnerable population weather the pandemic. San Jose cut back on sweeping camps to prevent displacement, but the practice has since resumed.

As the region slides into the endemic phase of COVID, city-funded safety nets such as rental assistance and food services are rolling back. San Jose officials said the demands for hot meals have dropped from an average of 7,000 meals per week last year to 5,000 currently.

“More food kitchens are now reopening,” Bautista said. “There’s clearly more avenues or places for meals that can be provided.”

But Cartwright and L’Amora said the loss of services means they’ll have to find new resources.

“We are aggressively working with other organizations and private donors to help fill this gap, so that our weekly distribution is not interrupted,” L’Amora said. “Hunger does not take a break.”

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

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