San Jose housed more than 2,500 people — but still falls short
A homeless encampment amid flooding is pictured in San Jose. File photo.

    San Jose reportedly had one of its most significant years in housing the homeless, but advocates said the efforts are barely making a dent.

    In the past year, San Jose helped nearly 2,600 homeless people get off the streets, with 71% of them moving into permanent housing, according to a city report published this month. The city also paid for hotels and motels for about 190 families with young children while they looked for housing, the report shows.

    The city, through its rental assistance initiatives, secured $19 million from the state’s rent relief program to prevent 1,590 families from eviction. San Jose also launched an eviction prevention clinic and worked in partnership with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley to help tenants. In total, the city prevented 2,466 residents from falling into homelessness this past fiscal year, the report said.

    But advocates said those efforts are not enough.

    “This piecemeal help with eviction and housing is not going to keep up,” Todd Langton, founder of the Coalition for the Unhoused in Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight. Langton sat on Mayor Matt Mahan’s committee to address homelessness. “This is like emptying a water bottle from a helicopter on a 1,000-acre forest fire. It’s not doing much.”

    Langton’s coalition has been pushing for the city and county to use the fairgrounds along Tully Road to provide safe parking, encampments and services. The group also wants the city to evaluate how effective local nonprofits are in curbing the crisis and stop sweeping encampments.

    City officials agree that more needs to be done. The biggest challenges to building affordable housing in San Jose are the high construction costs and delayed permitting process, officials said.

    “Helping over 4,000 people escape or avoid homelessness last year was a significant accomplishment, but we have much more work to do,” the city’s Housing Assistant Director Rachel VanderVeen told San José Spotlight. “Thousands more people living on our streets need help.”

    Mahan, who vowed to address the crisis with a new sense of urgency, said San Jose will prioritize faster and cheaper solutions to get more people housed.

    “My March budget message will call on the City Manager to develop proposals for moving people into safe and managed sites faster and more cost-effectively than current approaches without reducing our commitment to prevention measures,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I will also continue to be a strong advocate for behavioral health investments and reform. We are leaving far too many of our most vulnerable residents alone to die on the streets, which is morally unacceptable.”

    San Jose spent $89 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year to help build and run interim housing and fund services for homeless people and low-income families. These include meals, child care costs, shelter and warming locations during the winter season, among other things. The funding came from various sources, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the American Rescue Act, and the Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) grant. Prior to the pandemic, the city spent about $25 million annually on such services. In total, the city’s investments helped 15,000 residents this past year, officials said.

    San Jose has been grappling with the homelessness crisis for the past decade, as the city’s population continues to grow. As of last year, the city’s homeless population grew 8% since 2019, totaling 6,650 homeless residents. The city also saw an increase in the number of people being homeless for more than a year. A national study released last month found the city has the highest number of homeless young adults per capita. The city is now waiting on an updated count of the homeless population following a count in January.

    Karen Kontz, an attorney with Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, wants to see the city do more to prevent evictions—a leading cause of homelessness.

    “(Eviction diversion) does not, however, help with the underlying affordability problem in this city which could be addressed with stronger tenant protections,” Kontz told San José Spotlight, referring to policies such as the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), which would require rental property owners to offer first rights on a sale to tenants or a qualified nonprofit before putting it on the market.

    Virginia Becker, a homeless advocate with the Coalition for the Unhoused in Silicon Valley, said she worries the recent tech layoffs in the Bay Area will exacerbate the issue.

    “The need right now is to recognize (homelessness) as the humanitarian crisis and open something like the fairgrounds, which is completely vacant,” Becker told San José Spotlight. “Because out in the field, nothing is changing.”

    City officials are racing to build more permanent and transitional housing, including tiny homes, to get residents off the streets. Those efforts contributed to a drop in homeless people living outdoors—from 84% in 2019 to 75% last year. The city continues to work on opening a safe parking site for RVs in South San Jose, but advocates are frustrated with the ongoing delay. The parking site was supposed to be available in January.

    VanderVeen said the city is exploring how to keep the programs funded because the CARES Act and the American Recovery Act were one-time dollars.

    “We will be resourceful,” she said. “As a department, we will do what is necessary to get more housing built, and to move more people from homelessness to stable housing.”

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

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