The exterior of the South Hall of the convention center in San Jose
Two San Jose councilmembers see large open space homeless shelters, like South Hall in San Jose which served as an emergency shelter during the pandemic, as viable solutions. File photo.

Two San Jose councilmembers have an ambitious plan to house thousands of the city’s homeless residents — but some of their colleagues say it will move the city backwards.

Councilmembers Bien Doan and Arjun Batra have proposed a pilot program to build massive assembly room-style homeless shelters, with the option for private rooms. While their proposal — called SJ LUV or Lifting Up Lives — was unanimously rejected at a Rules and Open Government Committee meeting earlier this month, city officials plan to bring it up during budget discussions to determine if it makes sense in terms of cost and time commitment.

San Jose has focused on temporary housing that provides private rooms and bathrooms to residents, with large open space shelters being viewed as an archaic approach to addressing homelessness. There are approximately 6,340 homeless residents living in the city and more than 9,900 countywide.

The city has made a name for itself as the poster child of temporary housing success — and officials have doubled down on investing in this approach. In the last year, the city has approved the Berryessa safe parking site and the future launch of Cerone, Via Del Oro and Cherry housing sites. Mayor Matt Mahan is also proposing more safe parking sites, sanctioned encampments and a pilot program called Homeward Bound that would help reconnect and bus homeless residents to their families outside the city.

However, Doan and Batra believe the city’s current approach is not working, especially because temporary housing can take years to build and cost millions of dollars. And with state demands to clear unhoused residents from living along the San Jose’s waterways by June, they argue the city needs to come up with  more creative solutions.

“Whatever the city has been doing isn’t adequate,” Batra said at the meeting. “We don’t have a plan which works, and that is why we are in such a hurry.”

The pair argues their proposal can build the shelters in less than five months for a cost of roughly $16,000 per bed. They said it’s 98.9% cheaper than the current permanent supportive housing approach which can take up to a decade to build beds that can cost roughly $1.4 million each.

Their idea is to build shelters in District 7 that will accommodate at least 1,000 beds for the unhoused from Districts 2, 7 and 10.  Jonathan Fleming, Doan’s chief of staff, pointed to the San Jose Convention Center South Hall, which was used as a congregate shelter during the pandemic, as an example of what they want to create.

While the pilot program failed to pass, Doan still hopes his council colleagues will find value in prefabricated large-scale shelters. The District 7 councilmember is working with Mayor Matt Mahan to determine if there is land in the East San Jose district that could accommodate temporary housing.

Fleming said there are at least three sites that could work: the landfill on Singleton Road, Remillard Court and the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds — the latter is unlikely because county officials oppose using it as a homeless site.

“We were really hoping (councilmembers) were going to push (the pilot program) through so they can study what it would take to get these things up,” Fleming told San José Spotlight. “They just didn’t do that, so we got to come up with something new to figure out are any of these three-plus sites available.”

However, Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Pam Foley and David Cohen said the city’s approach is working. For the first time in years, San Jose has seen a 4% dip in its homeless population.

“We’ve settled on a direction over time that has brought us to a place where we actually have some solutions that while they’re slow to work, I think are working,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to double the number of sites so that we can actually, I think, make a more rapid impact. And we don’t want to necessarily distract from that.”

Homeless advocates also criticized the proposal, noting that homeless people would never voluntarily sign up for these kind of shelters.

Debra Townley, a formerly homeless mother, said the idea of sleeping in such a site terrifies her.

“My son has sleep apnea, he would keep people awake, who would then beat him up in the morning,” Townley said. “This is inhumane. We can’t continue to create things that don’t work. (This) model is over. It’s obsolete. We’re not doing that anymore. And we have to come up with new ideas.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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