San Jose’s largest emergency homeless shelter closes
South Hall in San Jose acted as an emergency homeless shelter during the pandemic. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Homeless advocates say dozens of people are left without a roof over their heads after South Hall, one of San Jose’s largest temporary COVID-19 shelters, shut down Thursday.

City officials have vowed to help find shelter for all the residents through a nonprofit partner.

“Some people went to tiny homes,” homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight. She claims that approximately 50 unhoused residents still don’t have a place to live.

Cartwright said another 40 residents walked away from the temporary shelter out of frustration.

“For the people that didn’t, they’re just getting shuttled to another shelter,” she said. “For many of them, they stayed at South Hall for over a year now. And now you’re mixing personalities, you’re mixing territories—you’re mixing a lot.”

The city’s housing department partnered with homeless services provider HomeFirst to coordinate and run the temporary shelter at South Hall. HomeFirst has several homeless shelters in Santa Clara County, including the Boccardo Reception Center—the largest such shelter in the county—the Sunnyvale Family Shelter and various tiny homes.

HomeFirst did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The city denies that people have been pushed out of the shelter with nowhere to go. According to Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the city’s housing department, there were 16 people remaining at South Hall Thursday morning. The 200-plus people living there have been given shelter opportunities, he said, such as beds at county shelters.

“When we started winding down operations at South Hall, we had nearly 250 guests,” Scott told San José Spotlight. “We are very happy nobody was forced to exit South Hall back onto the street.”

Scott says the city and local nonprofits gave residents other housing options as South Hall returns to convention activities.

Since opening in April 2020, South Hall sheltered approximately 200 adults on most nights. Residents received boxed meals and had access to showers and hygiene facilities on site. Santa Clara County also offered COVID-19 vaccines to everyone staying at South Hall, though they didn’t require everyone to take it.

One of those adults, former cook Melvin, who didn’t give his last name for fear of retaliation from other residents, stayed at South Hall from December until March. He said he enjoyed the services there—despite the drug use he witnessed—but left after being attacked in the bathroom earlier this year. Management referred him to another shelter in Sunnyvale, but Melvin said he was too traumatized from his experience at South Hall to live at another shelter. He now lives at a local park.

“It was scary sometimes,” Melvin told San José Spotlight. “I couldn’t stay at a shelter anymore and I decided to stay (on) the street.”

Melvin said management told him he qualified for a tiny home, but he said he’s still waiting to be placed in one. He learned about South Hall closing recently from Cartwright.

“It’s sad,” Melvin said about the shelter closing. “You have a place where you can clean yourself and that makes it easier to find a job because you have an address and information. But now there’s no services… It’s going to be tough moments for (the residents). I feel for them.”

San Jose used South Hall as part of its multi-pronged COVID-19 homeless response, including a similar shelter for families at the Camden Community Center in south San Jose. At homeless encampments, the city placed sinks and portable bathrooms and arranged garbage collection days.

Cartwright said she’s fearful that the homeless residents at South Hall—some of whom are not fully vaccinated—will cause a COVID-19 outbreak if they mix with residents in other shelters.

Scott previously told San José Spotlight that future housing plans for those sheltered at South Hall will be determined through an assessment by HomeFirst and the city, with input from the residents themselves. Several housing and shelter options may be available to people depending on their circumstances, including motel vouchers, bridge or interim housing, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, shelters throughout Santa Clara County and one-time financial assistance.

South Hall will go back to its pre-pandemic use of hosting convention-related events. From Sep. 24 through Nov. 14, the convention hall will host “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” a three-dimensional walkthrough art exhibit of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s most popular works.

Cartwright said displacing the shelter’s residents isn’t worth the revenue of the art exhibit.

“There’s not enough places for people to be as it is. This was another emergency shelter,” Cartwright said. “Nobody cares about unhoused people. They’re just collateral damage for other decisions that make more money. Homelessness is good business. But it’s not as good business for San Jose as conventions.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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