People stand outside in a semicircle
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan (right) speaks about the importance of safe sleeping sites for homeless individuals on June 17, 2024. Photo by Joyce Chu.

San Jose officials came through on their promise to add safe sleeping sites throughout the city as they come closer to getting homeless residents off the streets and the waterways cleaned up.

In order to reach the city’s goal of moving people living along the waterways, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to move forward with analyzing the feasibility of eight safe sleeping sites for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Councilmembers also voted to accelerate the long-awaited construction of an emergency temporary housing site on Cherry Avenue, with the goal of opening it by Sept. 30, 2025.

“This is aligned with the strategy that we all approved unanimously in the message… to hit the goal of 500 people in temporary safe sleeping sites so that we can get on the road to comply with the stormwater permit,” Mayor Matt Mahan said.

Mahan originally proposed nine sites for sanctioned tents to be built, but citizens opposed building a safe sleeping site on the Phelan Avenue parking lot. That lot is near History Park, a local museum that hosts family-friendly events throughout the year. Nearly a dozen citizens stepped forward to speak out against it, stating the parking lot is necessary during the museum’s events, as well as an important revenue stream for the city.

“This is the only parking lot adjacent to History Park and is regularly used by History San Jose,” Bill Schroh, president of History San Jose which operates the museum, said. “The lot is completely full in every one of our events. We already have 35 events booked for use of the lot in 2025. Not to mention the rest of 2024. Where do you suggest History San Jose sends all those cars to go parking?”

Instead of using the parking lot as a safe sleeping site, the city will consider the areas within Kelley Park. Other sites in consideration include parcels off Lelong Street, Willow Street, 3278 Almaden Road, the Tully/Monterey Property and 1157 E. Taylor St.

Property owners living near proposed safe sleeping sites have opposed them, including Willow Glen residents who protested turning a vacant lot in their neighborhood into a city-sanctioned homeless camp for fear of being threatened by homeless individuals or having their cars broken into.

The city could spend $15 million on safe sleeping sites over the next two years, taken from Measure E, a property transfer tax approved by voters in 2020. The funds will be used to design, build and operate the sanctioned tent sites, costing anywhere from $18,000 to $40,000 per tent, or $9 million to $20 million for 500 tents.

Three-fourths of Measure E funds were intended to be used for affordable housing construction, with 25% going to homelessness prevention, rental assistance and shelters. However, councilmembers voted last week to shift about $25 million toward clearing the waterways and creating interim housing for homeless residents, leaving $11 million for building affordable homes this fiscal year.

Mahan met with homeless and environmental advocates at the Guadalupe River Trail on Monday and spoke about safe sleeping sites as the group walked through a portion peppered with trash and tents. He told San José Spotlight he wants 100 to 200 tents per site built on public land or land the city can lease, and possibly build on private land in the future.

San Jose has 6,340 unhoused residents, 4,411 of whom live on the street, along rivers or in tents, according to the county’s 2023 biennial count of homeless people. This number doesn’t paint the full picture of homelessness in the city, as it only measures people experiencing homelessness on a single night. The survey is often considered an undercount.

Despite previous councils voting down the idea in 2015 and 2021, Mahan said safe sleeping sites are essential to keep the waterways free of trash and fulfill obligations for continued stormwater permit approval — and now the full council is onboard.

“We’ve been dealt a very, very difficult situation,” Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei said at the council meeting. “It’s really complicated and riddled with a lot of different layers. I think we are getting to a better place.”

Contact Joyce Chu at [email protected] or follow @joyce_speaks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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