San Jose plans dynamic initiative to house and employ homeless
San Jose police officers stand by as trash collection workers haul belongings out of a homeless encampment in March. File photo.

    Responding to the growing homeless crisis, San Jose has ambitious plans to shelter and employ thousands of unhoused residents within the next five years.

    The Rules and Open Government Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend the City Council support a housing blueprint and efforts to employ homeless residents to clean up the city. The council will consider the plan at a later date.

    The plan, announced by Mayor Sam Liccardo last week, proposes using prefabricated homes as a cost-effective way to shelter those sleeping on the streets. It’s part of a larger collaboration of community-based service groups, local government, philanthropy, business, health care and people with lived experience—called the Community Plan to End Homelessness.

    City officials want to house 20,000 people in the next five years through supportive housing and by doubling shelter capacity countywide. By the end of 2022, San Jose aims to shelter 1,500 unhoused residents and build 2,300 permanent and transitional homes.

    ‘We can get this done’

    Liccardo said there’s a proven success record with three interim housing communities which were relatively fast and inexpensive to build—and include private bedrooms and bathrooms. He said these apartments alleviate resident concerns with safety, pets and personal belongings.

    “We’re hearing very positive feedback,” he said, adding that the county Board of Supervisors just approved $40 million for rapid housing projects.

    Challenges to the housing program include locating sites and sustainability, Liccardo said. The Rue Ferrari interim housing site in South San Jose emerged from collaborating with Caltrans, he said, where 120 residents at the site receive mental health services, workforce training and stable housing.

    Liccardo said the city is looking at land creatively and is considering building homes in locations such as freeway cloverleafs and parking lots.

    “I’d like to believe we can get this done,” Liccardo said. “We can build these (prefabricated) modular units… and provide sustainability.”

    Resident Gail Osmer said District 9 needs shelter for the unhoused, but is concerned about how long it’s going to take, especially following the recent clearing of encampments at Columbus Park.

    “We need to have something for all these folks or they’re going to end up on the creek…. and no one’s going to be happy,” she said. “We need to get more housing, more motels now.”

    A need for housing

    The number of homeless residents in San Jose has grown exponentially and was more than 6,100 people in 2019. A more recent count was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but homeless advocates say there are more people living outdoors than ever before.

    Bob Sippel, manager of the Guadalupe River Park Gardens, said more housing is vital.

    “Without enough homes and facilities, there’s no way we can solve the problem by the river or the Columbus Park area,” Sippel said. “Certainly we need more housing.”

    As part of efforts to shelter unhoused residents, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez wants to create a safe parking site in his district for RV dwellers, and is looking to expand this plan to other sites as well. His office is in talks with the housing department about using the Santa Teresa VTA light rail station. Jimenez said all councilmembers should identify safe parking sites in their districts.

    A safe parking site on city property in North San Jose hasn’t been well-received by homeowners in the area since it opened Sept. 7.

    “We have a housing crisis, and we need to do everything we can to alleviate that issue,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “Far too many people are still living on the streets and it’s incumbent upon us to get some of this housing moving.”

    Councilmember Raul Peralez hopes the plan can permanently end homelessness for thousands of people in the city. He said given the focus and resources, it’s a unique opportunity.

    Offering jobs

    The city is also looking to expand employment opportunities for homeless people while beautifying the city through the San Jose Bridge program, which offers job training.

    The program is focused on litter clean-up and beautification projects at 140 sites. Participants will be paid $23.31 per hour if health benefits are offered, or $24.56 per hour if health benefits are not offered.

    Councilmember Sylvia Arenas wants to ensure that high-need neighborhoods are targeted as opposed to more affluent areas that get attention because residents complain to the city.

    “We want to be sure it’s not motivated by the frequency of calls but actual need,” she said.

    Arenas said she is concerned with conditional housing based upon employment or job training through the bridge program.

    “I want to make sure interim sites lead to permanent solutions for our families,” Arenas said. “It’s much needed.”

    Councilmember Matt Mahan told San Jose Spotlight he’s glad to see the committee reverse course as he called for a similar prefabricated housing proposal a week ago that went nowhere.

    “After a fairly disappointing debate last week, I was glad to see the Rules committee… embraced my call to build prefabricated modular housing to scale,” Mahan said. “The 1,000 units is probably one-fifth of the estimated need for this kind of housing, but it’s absolutely a step in the right direction.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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