San Jose says its multi-prong plan to manage homeless camps will improve the quality of life for both the unhoused population and general public. But advocates and lawyers say nothing in the plan will bring meaningful results as the city continues to displace people through sweeps.
“The treatment of people living outside has always been terrible,” Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, told San José Spotlight. Perry has advocated for homeless people in San Jose for more than 30 years. “It’s always been ‘sweep, sweep sweep.'”
Since last summer, San Jose has ramped up its effort to manage homeless encampments that have grown in size and visibility. City officials have streamlined outreach and services by consolidating various programs under one department. San Jose also established bi-weekly trash pick-up programs and outreach initiatives to shift away from routine encampment sweeps.
“(The city) acknowledges that there’s not enough housing, therefore encampment locations do exist and will exist,”Andrea Shelton, a deputy director with the parks department, said at a City Council meeting this week. “An effective strategy means (encampments) should be clean and offered some form of sanitation, hygiene and social services.”
The management plan also includes partnering with other public agencies and bringing basic services to several larger sites—efforts that advocates have rallied behind.
But the plan also calls for further sweeping of tents and structures located at a number of locations such as schools, sidewalks, construction sites and city buildings—a policy that criminalizes the homeless population, said Abre’ Conner, a lawyer with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.
“The city has created these things that they call ‘setbacks,’ which are places where unhoused people will no longer be welcomed to live,” Conner told San José Spotlight. “This is definitely going to increase the number of sweeps across the city and make it very challenging for unhoused people.”
A letter from the foundation said the city’s rules restricting where encampments could go is potentially illegal. Officials did not address the foundation’s letter at the meeting.
San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, is reckoning with a homeless crisis that has exploded over the last few years. Thousands of residents are sleeping in tents and vehicles along waterways, under highways, in parks and in front of businesses, while business owners are growing frustrated. The city recorded more than 6,000 homeless people in 2019, but officials and advocates say the crisis has only gotten worse during the pandemic. The new homeless tally is set to be released this summer.
Sweeping hasn’t stopped
Prior to the pandemic, San Jose relied on sweeping to respond to complaints from neighborhoods or businesses about homeless camps. The city halted those efforts during the early days of the pandemic upon recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but sweeps resumed last year. San Jose cleared more than 200 sites between January and November 2021, San José Spotlight previously reported.
City officials said this week that sweeping is now the last resort for San Jose. The city has unprecedented resources—through the county and other partnerships—to offer or connect people with mental health treatment and other needed services, Councilmember Raul Peralez said.
It is also spending millions of dollars in trash pick-up programs to help improve living conditions at a number of locations. In 2021, San Jose hauled more than 4,500 tons of trash from various encampments.
Still, San Jose cleared out 72 camps between last October and January, citing mostly violations of the setback rule, among other reasons.
“There’s a lot of councilmembers that at least seem to be concerned about mental health treatment for the unhoused,” Perry said. “But if you’re sweeping people, you cannot have effective mental health treatment.”
Dr. Jackie Newton, who treats a number of people living near the sprawling encampment at Columbus Park, told the City Council on Tuesday that sweeps disrupt treatment.
“When people are swept, it makes my job harder to find them and often I don’t find them,” Newton said. “People will get sicker and end up in the hospitals, which is costing our systems even more.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the city identified more than a dozen large encampments to provide case management, portable restrooms and trash services. It’s looking to add 10 more sites, but there’s no guarantee those locations won’t be swept. Several large sites chosen in 2020 have since been cleared, city documents show.
Permanent housing remains the answer
Several councilmembers called for different initiatives to be explored to help address the homeless crisis at the meeting. Peralez renewed his efforts to have sanctioned encampments in San Jose and asked city officials to report back later this year. Councilmember David Cohen wants to see an internal database on all homeless camps and the city’s interactions with residents at those sites.
Perry said those are nice to have, but the issue remains a lack of housing. According to city documents, San Jose produced 1,007 affordable homes between 2018 and 2021—about 10% of the goal it promised in 2017.
“They can improve their Band-Aids, and I’m in favor of better Band-Aids,” he said. “But if the housing situation gets worse and worse and the rents are going higher and higher, all the temporary Band-Aids that you put on are not going to help.”