Homeless encampment
A homeless encampment along a Highway 101 on-ramp at Story Road is pictured in this file photo. File photo.

    Already facing a severe housing shortage, San Jose leaders worry the newest crisis plaguing the region — the coronavirus pandemic — will spread among its homeless community, one of the city’s most vulnerable populations.

    With more than 6,000 unhoused residents in the city, lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to contain the virus. As part of that effort, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved allocating nearly $730,000 to operate 90 trailers for high-risk, homeless individuals to shelter in during the pandemic.

    The city will partner with Abode Services to house the homeless residents at a city-owned parking lot at the intersection of Story Road and Remillard Court, adjacent to Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.

    “We’re trying to save lives and we are prioritizing the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Jacky Morales-Ferrand, the city’s housing director. “The goal is to prevent the spread of this disease and the prevention of early death.”

    Contracting the coronavirus is an even greater threat to unhoused residents, Morales-Ferrand added, as they face more challenges taking preventative actions, are unable to meet “basic sanitary requirements” and in many cases are in “poorer health than the general public, resulting from more underlying health conditions.”

    Health officials have already identified nearly 2,500 homeless individuals who have underlying conditions or are considered high risk, Ferrand-Morales said. People who identify as Hispanic make up 43 percent of the homeless population, while nearly 17 percent of the homeless population are African Americans, she said.

    “Homelessness is not just an individual person’s problem or their moral failure to pull themselves out of poverty, homelessness is primarily a structural problem,” Morales- Ferrand added.

    The city received 104 trailers from state authorities, but only 90 were determined habitable after repairs were made. The federal grant money can only be used to house homeless people who have contracted or been exposed to the virus, or have underlying conditions.

    Because the county is leading the efforts on sheltering homeless people who are COVID-19 positive or have been exposed to the virus through the state’s motel program, the city will use the trailers to provide shelter to high-risk individuals. City officials have defined high-risk individuals as older adults over 50 with three or more underlying health conditions or adults with three or more severe underlying health conditions.

    Councilmember Maya Esparza, whose district encompasses the site, said the city should develop an exit strategy for the residents staying in the trailers once Happy Hollow Park and Zoo reopens. While she supports using the parking lot, she said it’s an “important distinction” that the city use the site temporarily.

    To prevent those homeless individuals from being put back on the streets, she’s also calling for the city to prioritize them for housing at a tiny home community.

    “Given this as a temporary measure, I am interested in what that process is once we do close down,” she said.

    Housing officials said they are partnering with the county to find suitable transitionary sites for the homeless people to land once the park reopens to the public.

    The city’s efforts to house the homeless have expanded since the pandemic first spread. So far, 450 temporary shelter beds have been added at various locations across the city, while 10 shelters, safe parking sites and overnight warming locations extended their hours of operations. To date, 600 motel rooms have been used to house homeless individuals who are sick with the virus countywide.

    The site will have basic amenities including 24/7 private security, laundry, bathrooms and showers, as well as meal delivery. City officials will also explore using Happy Hollow’s current onsite security services for the temporary shelter site. The site will be heavily controlled, as individuals will only be allowed to get in through one entrance and must be screened by security. No guests or visitors will be allowed, and residents must comply with the shelter-in-place order.

    To receive shelter at one of the trailers, qualifying unhoused residents will need to be referred through the city’s housing department and screened by a doctor or nurse first.

    Housing officials expect the site to begin operating May 14.

    Federal funding for low-income HIV/AIDS positive residents

    Also on Tuesday, city lawmakers unanimously approved allocating an additional $140,108 in funds to house low-income individuals who have tested positive for HIV and AIDS amid the COVID-19 crisis.

    The federal dollars will pool into an existing fund operated by the Health Trust, the nonprofit providing onsite housing and services for the HIV- and AIDS-positive individuals. The funds will be used to provide additional support to existing program participants who are facing challenges due to COVID-19.

    The federal grant will bring the program’s total funds to $1,396,569, up from $1,256,461.

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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