San Jose homeless struggle to get necessities during COVID-19 shutdown
Homeless residents and advocates showed up in front of City Hall Wednesday to ask officials to make changes to how they are handling the shelter in place order. Image courtesy of Todd Langton

Everyone has been affected by the region’s stay-home mandate, but those in San Jose without homes say the order has left them without ways to meet their basic needs.

Four homeless residents and several homeless advocates spoke to San José Spotlight this week to share how the shelter-in-place order, which went into effect March 17, has affected them — and what they want San Jose to do differently.

The residents said they’re struggling more than ever to find clean water, places to charge electronics, respite from the elements and food after places like libraries, community centers and park bathrooms were closed. They want the city to immediately open city park bathrooms, provide a way to charge devices and wheelchairs and create greater access to government meetings, where homelessness is often discussed.

Making the situation worse, community volunteers who once delivered goods to encampments have dwindled in the face of the coronavirus that can cause a deadly respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

“There’s a decrease in food going out to the camps and there’s an inability for a lot of people to actually go to where food is,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a San Jose homelessness advocate.

Jeff Scott, a city housing department spokesman, told San José Spotlight that city employees are working to address the myriad concerns that have been brought forward.

“We’re doing our best,” he said. “We have somebody on a shift somewhere working 24/7 to reach all the people that we can reach and we are doing our best to make sure that we can help everyone who needs help.”

Many of the homeless people who shared their stories are part of the Unhoused Response Group, which has worked with Santa Clara County to distribute nearly 1,000 kits that include hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and information about the coronavirus. The county has also given the group 75 solar-powered chargers to distribute to homeless residents.

But with 9,706 homeless residents in the county — 6,172 of which are in San Jose alone — more help is needed, said Jake Tonkel, a District 6 City Council candidate who showed up with the homeless residents in front of City Hall Wednesday.

The push for water, electricity and access

Glenda Morgan, who goes by the name Geezee, lives in an encampment of 39 people with a single portable toilet and handwashing station. That’s far short of what the encampment needs, she said.

“It’s essential that they don’t close the restrooms in the parks or the fountains because that’s where we get our water and we wash up,” Morgan said.

Although not all San Jose parks bathrooms are closed — Columbus, Olinder and Roosevelt park bathrooms remain open — most were shuttered due to the county order that requires areas with “high touchpoints” to be blocked off, Scott said.

“We tried to balance that with the needs of our residents and we have been able to keep some of our park restrooms open,” he said. “Specifically some of the park restrooms that get quite a bit of traffic that we think can … do the most good.”

Other homeless residents said they need a way to charge devices like electric wheelchairs, ankle monitors and phones they can use to get information on the pandemic and check in with family. The county’s order to shelter in place will last until at least May 3, cutting off access to libraries and other community spaces with computers, internet access and electrical outlets. That’s prompted some people to go without or get creative.

Jerome Shaw, president of the tenants association at a shelter in Sunnyvale, witnessed a man charging his ankle monitor on a median at Park Avenue and Highway 87 get a ticket for damaging public property about a week ago.

“He was telling the officer, ‘I have no place to charge my phone or charge my ankle bracelet,’ and the officer said, ‘Well, go to the library,’” Shaw said. “Obviously, all the libraries are closed.”

Santa Clara County has ramped up virtual arraignments to limit contact for inmates and screenings to ensure arrestees who enter jails haven’t come into contact with COVID-19. Some police departments in the state are exploring how to release non-violent inmates with monitoring devices.

But without a place to charge such devices, many are “at the mercy of the sheriff’s department or SJPD,” Cartwright said.

Like the Unhoused Response Group, San Jose is working with Santa Clara County to distribute solar chargers to homeless residents, Scott said. County officials on Thursday said 200 chargers had been purchased.

In the meantime, the city has also increased efforts to shelter the homeless and to educate unhoused residents about the virus, Scott said.

The new Hope Health Mobile, is operated by WeHOPE and supported by San Jose, offers health screenings, electricity and other services to homeless residents. Image courtesy of city of San Jose

All of the shelters in the city are operating 24 hours a day and the city is opening more shelters, like those at Parkside Hall and the South Hall in downtown, where residents will have access to electricity. The city is working on refurbishing 105 trailers from the state that will help isolate residents with COVID-19 or health conditions.

The city also paid to add a trailer to East Palo Alto-based WeHOPE’s Dignity on Wheels fleet, which offers mobile services like showers, charging stations and laundry at homeless encampments. The new trailer, known as the Hope Health Mobile, offers medical assessments.

“Last week they actually had Stanford doctors participating remotely on viewable screens so people living in encampments who had questions about COVID-19 could ask the Stanford doctors,” Scott said.

The absence of public meetings

As more shelters and programs come online, some homeless residents say they feel they’re on the outside, trying to look in on how public officials are handling these issues during meetings that often stretch into the night. Due to social distancing requirements, councilmembers aren’t meeting in the traditional public chamber and resident comments are delivered online.

“I can’t keep my car and my phone charged like that without killing my battery or running out of gas or carbon monoxide killing myself,” said Lisa Reeve, who is homeless.

Reeve has been politically active for years, serving on the Civil Grand Jury in San Benito County and campaigning for public officials in the past. She cannot afford local rents and lives in her car, but wants to watch and testify at local government meetings.

“I really think we need to be able to participate easier, and maybe we can be afforded a room with social distancing or some sort of up-front (meeting) … that we can express our concerns,” she said. “A lot of the council meetings are about taking care of what the houseless need and … our biggest need is to be able to communicate with our elected officials.”

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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