Flooded river by building.
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan hopes to prioritize homelessness in the upcoming 2024-25 fiscal year budget cycle, including plans to clear out encampments along waterways, such as the Guadalupe River. File photo.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan has a plan for the city’s homeless residents, ranging from temporary housing to encampment clearings, but the budget may not be able to support it.

Mahan plans to push for more temporary housing, camp sweeps and a program that reconnects homeless people to their families as part of budget discussions for fiscal year 2024-25. It may be tough with the city anticipating an now estimated $52.1 million budget shortfall, exacerbated by an expected increase of $25 million needed to clear encampments near creeks.

The mayor hosted a virtual town hall on Monday to discuss homelessness. More than 500 people attended and 90% of people surveyed at the event said they would support Mahan’s plans to address the problem.

San Jose has 6,340 unhoused residents, nearly 5,000 of whom are unsheltered, according to Santa Clara County’s 2023 biennial count of homeless people. More than 9,900 people are homeless countywide and nearly 4,300 households experienced homelessness for the first time last year — a 24% increase from 2022 — according to county data.

Mahan said the city has a responsibility to prioritize homelessness in the budget, which must be approved by San Jose City Council before the end of June.

Clearing camps

Mahan said he wants San Jose to clear more homeless encampments along its rivers and creeks by offering shelter and supportive services, following pressure from the state to depollute its waterways.

Last month, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board denied the city a stormwater permit, citing the negative effects homeless camps have had on San Jose’s waterways. San Jose has until June 30, 2025 to clean up pollutants or face tens of thousands of dollars in fines per day.

Mahan said roughly 90% of pollution in creeks and rivers is caused by homeless encampments. People refusing to move due to mental illness or addiction will face sweeps, which Mahan said is never the goal, or possible placement in treatment facilities. After a camp is cleared out, homeless people will be barred from returning, he said.

“Preserving our progress and enforcing a code of conduct is most viable when we have somewhere to offer people,” Mahan said. “That’s really the right way to approach this: to build safe, dignified alternatives to encampments.”

Homeless advocate Scott Largent said the issue near the city’s waterways is its own doing. He said the city encouraged people to move to the creeks and rivers after clearing their camps and promising them help, which he claimed many never received.

“They’re not going to trust the city because the city gets their hopes up and then all of a sudden they post a 72-hour notice (to leave), they give them a ticket or they (treat them) different late at night when the police come out,” Largent told San José Spotlight.

Homeward Bound

Mahan announced plans to pilot a Homeward Bound program,  which aims to house homeless people by reconnecting them with their families and support networks. The program, if implemented, will be modeled after San Francisco’s program, which ended in 2022.

“We believe a program like Homeward Bound can compassionately help some of our most vulnerable residents find stability and support,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

Homeless advocates disagree on if the program will benefit the community and said it may not be realistic.

Homeless advocate Robert Aguirre said some unhoused people may be estranged from their families, who may not be capable of caring for them. He said the program shifts away from what he’d like to see more of — permanent supportive housing.

“It also is turning away from the real issue and the responsibility to house people,” he told San José Spotlight.

Temporary housing

In a continued push for temporary housing, Mahan said modular homes and increased shelter capacity are a part of the solution.

He said temporary housing and shelter is cheaper and faster to build than permanent housing. It costs roughly $1 million per home for permanent housing and about $100,000 per home for temporary housing, according to Mahan.

The mayor still wants to address affordable housing, but said quick-build temporary housing is necessary.

“We’re gonna need things that again are faster to build, more cost-effective, more scaleable, given the magnitude of this crisis,” Mahan said. “We have to treat it like a crisis, like a true emergency.”

More than 19,570 people were placed in temporary housing countywide from 2020 to 2023, according to county data. But temporary housing isn’t always a smooth process. This month, San José Spotlight uncovered mismanagement of a roughly $70 million three-story modular housing project located along Branham Lane, leading to mold and water damage in pre-built homes and claims of insufficient wages. Mahan said the city will not let anyone move into homes that are unsafe to live in.

Mahan also emphasized increasing shelter space, safe parking, preventative services and creating safe sleeping spaces where homeless people can camp at a city-sanctioned site. He wants to enforce a good neighbor policy, which will codify how clean the outside of an RV or house has to be.

As a formerly unhoused person, Aguirre said he hopes the city will form a coalition of homeless and formerly unhoused people, who can provide insight into how the policies will affect them.

“We’re talking about representation, the basis on which this country was formed,” Aguirre said. “And yet we don’t have representation from people that are directly affected by all these campaigns.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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