San Jose votes to expand overnight warming centers for homeless

For the first time since San Jose declared a “shelter crisis” in 2015, lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved expanding an overnight warming location program for homeless residents to operate every night for the next six months — a major expansion considering the centers previously opened for a few months, based on inclement weather conditions.

Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco and Mayor Sam Liccardo were absent for the vote.

Liccardo spent the day on Capitol Hill to testify before Congress on California’s clean car emissions standards, following President Donald Trump’s decision to revoke California’s authority to set stricter auto emissions.

As part of its shelter crisis, the city began using public buildings for overnight warming locations to shelter unhoused residents during the cold winter nights. City officials Tuesday pushed hard to expand the program to operate on a nightly basis, in response to the city’s growing homeless population — up 40 percent from 2017 to 6,097 individuals this year.

There are four warming centers in San Jose all operated by HomeFirst, the largest emergency shelter provider in Santa Clara County, with two of them at the city-operated Bascom Community Center and the Roosevelt Community Center. For the next six months, those two locations will operate as overnight warming shelters every night from 9:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.

Another warming center inside the Tully Library was closed for the second year in a row due to overcrowding and disputes between neighbors and the homeless residents. Councilmember Maya Esparza, whose district includes the library, said the overflow of homeless residents spilled into the neighboring ball field, deterring residents from using it as it acted as an “encampment” for some of the unhoused.

The move stirred up controversy among some homeless advocates who said Tuesday the city’s two shelters, which can accommodate up to 60 individuals a night at both locations, won’t be enough to help the thousands living in the streets.

“We have a 42 percent homeless population out there, and you only only want to open two centers — it’s a disgrace. It shouldn’t be about the ball field, there’s no ball field open this winter,” said Gail Osmer, a longtime homeless advocate. “You have an opportunity to open Tully (Library), you have an opportunity and people have been asking you.”

But Esparza was quick to address the criticism from the residents at Tuesday’s meeting who blame her for the closure.

“There were some serious issues with that location which operated for years,” said Esparza. “It bothers me to hear people from other parts of the city, who have strong opinions about a neighborhood in San Jose that doesn’t have much and wants to use the resources that it has.”

Councilmember Johnny Khamis also raised concerns that Santa Clara County leaders were not taking the homeless epidemic “as seriously” as the city, despite the county’s annual budget nearly doubling to $8.1 billion in the last five years.

“We’re taking on more and more responsibility from the county. Homelessness is primarily the county’s responsibility and in their failure to make things happen, is the reason we are being forced to do more and more every day,” Khamis said. “I don’t think that they are taking this problem as seriously as we are. Let them use their $4 billion extra dollars to help these folks.”

To avoid long lines for a bed, homeless residents will have to be referred by HomeFirst either through outreach or a case manager in order to participate in the program. Each referral lasts 60 days and is eligible for an extension. In response to the city’s decision to operate the program on a referral basis, Councilmember Raul Peralez said it was “really crucial” that the Roosevelt Community Center, which falls in his district, provide storage for the participating homeless residents so they do not have keep moving their belongings from place to place.

“I really do think that this storage and the access to it is very important to the success of these overnight warming locations,” he said. “If we give them an opportunity to store their most valuable belongings, then they’re not having to travel every single day with all of their belongings.”

Several other councilmembers, including Councilmember Pam Foley, raised interest in opening a center in their districts, while Councilmember Sylvia Arenas voiced concern about the overflow of homeless residents who want to participate in the citywide program. Arenas suggested families look for shelter at faith-based organizations if they can’t participate in the citywide program.

“Homelessness is a citywide problem that we need to resolve citywide,” said Foley. “In District 9, we don’t have an OWL so how do we begin the conversation for opening one?”

City housing officials said the best places for shelters lie in the districts where the most homeless people are living, but that they’d work with Foley to determine if her district qualifies for a potential site, and confirmed they’re working with several faith-based groups to shelter families during the winter season’s coldest nights.

The increase in funds for the program from $350,000 to $1,484,180 will fund additional emergency shelter beds, homeless prevention and essential services. The program also offers access to restroom facilities and showers, packaged meals, site set up, supervision, janitorial services and security onsite.

The overnight warming locations open on Nov. 1 until April 30, 2020

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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