San Jose officials declare a homelessness emergency
San Jose Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei, Councilmember David Cohen, Mayor Matt Mahan, Elizabeth Funk, CEO of Dignity Moves, Councilmember Omar Torres and Jaime Navarro, a formerly homeless resident, speak at a homeless encampment at Lelong Street and Willow Street Oct. 2, 2023 in San Jose. Photo by Ben Irwin.

    San Jose leaders say homelessness is a crisis, and they intend to jumpstart their stalled progress in meeting ambitious housing goals.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei and Councilmembers David Cohen and Omar Torres jointly unveiled plans today to declare a shelter crisis and homelessness emergency. They want to bypass the bureaucracy they say is slowing the city’s progress in providing shelter to the more than 4,400 unsheltered homeless people in San Jose—the city has approximately 6,340 unhoused residents in total. The previous emergency powers with similar goals were premised on COVID-19, Mahan said, which have ceased since the state declared an end to the pandemic.

    Mahan said homelessness has been referred to as a crisis for years. San Jose City Council set a lofty goal of creating 1,000 new places for homeless people in San Jose this year, but progress is moving too slowly to meet that goal, Mahan said. The proposed policy commits the city to accelerating its ability to build safe, dignified alternatives to encampments and move people indoors.

    “We could end unsheltered homelessness in a year,” Mahan said Monday. “If an earthquake hit and put 4,000 of our neighbors in San Jose out on the streets, you’d have FEMA trailers at the county fairgrounds in 72 hours … we need to act like (this is an emergency).”

    Between 2020 and 2021, the city opened 470 beds through various homeless shelter projects, according to the city’s memo on its red tape-cutting proposal. Between 2022 and 2023 as the pandemic ended along with emergency declarations, the city opened just one emergency interim housing community with 96 beds and one safe parking site for 42 RVs.

    And in Santa Clara County, leaders provided shelter for at least five dozen homeless people at the county fairgrounds in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. But county officials this year said they won’t be housing homeless residents on the fairgrounds going forward, instead pushing for visions of sports and entertainment facilities.

    Mahan said where the city previously took shelter projects from concept to completion in about six to eight months during the pandemic now take up to two years. Cohen added the bureaucracy and sequential ordering in which contracts, site selection, bidding and design processes need to happen are adding months to project timelines.

    “That’s unacceptable,” Cohen said. “People in sites like this are really counting on the city giving them some opportunity, they are looking for services … the residents of our community who are dealing with growing encampments near their homes are also looking for help.”

    Officials held the city’s news conference outside a homeless encampment at Lelong Street and Willow Street, where a fire on Saturday torched a resident’s campsite.

    Richard Scott, a homeless advocate and board member with Grace Solutions—a homeless services provider operating out of Grace Baptist Church—has spent four years helping unhoused residents at the Lelong and Willow encampment. He told San José Spotlight the people living there need a city sanctioned encampment.

    “Where services are provided, where service providers can find them, where it’s controlled in such a way that if people are crazy and jacked out on meth, they’re not allowed here,” Scott told San José Spotlight. “You protect yourself at night by staying up with meth. (The sites) need to be fenced and controlled.”

    Mahan floated the possibility of instituting “safe sleeping” sites—supervised, safe camping with rules and services for unhoused residents, recently implemented in San Diego—as an alternative to the encampments scattered across San Jose. Though he said he’d still need to discuss it with his fellow councilmembers, since governments legally cannot criminalize homelessness when they don’t have enough shelter space available or without first providing housing to homeless people.

    “We need a spectrum of solutions,” Mahan said. “(What’s) unacceptable is to give people no alternatives to an unsafe, unmanaged encampment where we see fires, trash that’s unmanaged, pollution in our creeks and often violence.”

    Mahan said he’d have to refer to the city attorney to see if a safe sleeping tent would qualify as a bed to require people to move off the streets. But he said that’s not the driver behind providing safe sleeping sites.

    “My point is this is an unsafe sleeping site. There’s no security, there’s no controlled access. There’s very minimal on-site services,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I’m pushing it because of the safety issues.”

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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