San Jose could allow homeless residents to sleep outdoors
A portion of a homeless encampment along Coyote Creek near Corie Court on May 15, 2023, as city crews swept the camp and broke down shelters and tents. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    San Jose is considering adding safe sleeping sites to its long-running list of homelessness responses—an idea officials have shot down before.

    Amid the city declaring homelessness an emergency last week, local leaders want supervised outdoor living spaces with supportive services for the city’s unhoused residents. Safe sleeping  sites are already in place in San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, and Mayor Matt Mahan said similar solutions could help move homeless people off the streets.

    Haven For Hope, San Antonio’s nationally-recognized, 22-acre mega shelter offering an array of homelessness solutions to some 1,700 residents, has caught Mahan’s eye. He told San José Spotlight what interests him specifically is the scale and 1.5-acre courtyard that shelters hundreds of people on cots with access to three meals a day, showers and mental health and medical care. No weapons, alcohol or drugs are allowed, but sobriety at this shelter is not required.

    “Part of what appeals to me is it is a slight, incremental step toward the ultimate goal (of permanent housing),” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “It’s safe, and it starts connecting people to services and creates the first stepping stone to the next step, which might be something like interim housing.”

    The idea of a sanctioned homeless camp isn’t new. In 2015, then-Councilmember Don Rocha led the charge to create safe sleeping sites a year after authorities cleared “The Jungle,” a massive encampment that was home to 200 people.

    In 2019 the city allowed a homeless encampment to operate for about six months at Hope Village along Ruff Drive near San Jose Mineta International Airport—a fenced-in area with tents and bathrooms. Hope Village was dismantled and cleared out after the Federal Aviation Administration deemed the site unsafe. An alternate location could not be secured.

    San Jose considered sanctioned encampments again in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but councilmembers shelved the idea due to concerns of using city resources to oversee encampments and if they’d be effective at reducing homelessness.

    Mahan doesn’t envision a local safe sleeping site as massive as Haven for Hope—he said 250 beds is generally the range San Jose has found success with interim housing communities.

    Mahan has long said his goal is to require homeless people to “live indoors” once the city has enough beds to offer. The case of Martin v. Boise, which began in 2009 and was resolved in 2019, established that governments cannot criminalize homelessness when they don’t have enough shelter space to offer, or without first providing some sort of temporary shelter.

    City Attorney Nora Frimann said as long as San Jose is “improving” a site consistent with government code—declaring a shelter crisis loosens these requirements—the city can use that site to offer someone shelter in compliance with the law. But Mahan has said that’s not why he’s interested in safe sleeping sites—he’s most interested in dignified, safe living.

    Homeless advocate Richard Scott told San José Spotlight 20 people lived at Hope Village in large tents, and that it could still be replicated today and serve potentially more unhoused residents depending on the amount of land available.

    “It was an ideal sanctioned encampment,” Scott told San José Spotlight. “It’s what we need to have now … The county and the city has vacant land all over. The problem is trying to get them to use it for any of this.”

    Councilmember Pam Foley told San José Spotlight there is not an abundance of land readily available for use, which is a bottleneck to getting housing built. Foley, along with the rest of the VTA board, voted last week to lease 7.2 acres of the transit agency’s Cerone site to San Jose for five years to build 200 temporary homes for homeless residents. In District 9, she’s working on a housing project with Valley Water near Coyote Creek that’s at least six months out.

    Foley said she’d like to see more research done on vacant commercial buildings shuttered from COVID-19 like gyms and strip malls be considered as a shelter solution. When it comes to sanctioning safe places for homeless residents to sleep, she said times change.

    “The concern in the community changes and the need to address unhoused individuals is becoming more and more of a key issue within the city, particularly with this mayor,” she told San José Spotlight.

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

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