Some San Jose leaders ready to discuss sanctioned encampments
Homeless encampments are a common sight along Coleman Avenue in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

With homelessness on the rise, some city leaders in San Jose say it’s time to explore new ways to support those living on the streets.

In a recent newsletter to his District 10 constituents, Councilmember Matt Mahan announced plans to develop a comprehensive homeless encampment management strategy.

“We’ve gone far too long without actively managing encampments, to the detriment of both our unhoused neighbors and the wider community,” he wrote. “I’m advocating that City Hall study recently adopted encampment management plans in other cities, which restrict where encampments can exist, but provide basic sanitation and social services to those areas.”

Mahan told San José Spotlight he will also ask city staff to meet with local stakeholders so they can weigh in. He hopes to have recommendations from staff within three to six months.

Mahan said he believes “housing first” should be the city’s primary approach. But because creating new housing takes time, he wants to find ways to quickly clean up the encampments.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I firmly believe that we need a more proactive and comprehensive strategy that includes delivering basic services, such as a trash removal, hygienic services and case management, directly to people in encampments,” he said.

Mahan is not the only councilmember to bring up this issue.

Councilmember Raul Peralez has pushed for sanctioned encampments several times over his 6-year tenure. But, he told San José Spotlight, he was never able to get the idea off the ground.

“The biggest challenge has honestly been not getting enough support from my colleagues and the mayor,” he said, adding many feared it would be a failed undertaking.

Peralez explained other cities have tried sanctioned encampments with mixed results. Some were successful, while others became overridden with crime or blight. But Peralez said he is confident the city could handle sanctioned encampments.

 

Peralez added he does not believe this is a permanent solution to homelessness. He supports a variety of measures, such as tiny home communities. But the councilmember said he thinks sanctioned encampments can help those who are still waiting for shelter.

Andrea Urton, the chief executive officer of HomeFirst, said she’s excited to see some city leaders discussing sanctioned encampments. HomeFirst is a leading provider of shelter and services for homeless residents in Santa Clara County.

Urton would like to see the city offer a variety of services to improve life at the camps, including sanitation stations, trash removal, fencing and a security officer for protection.

But the CEO knows everyone won’t support this idea. She said some residents worry living near a sanctioned encampment could lower their property values, while she suspects others simply don’t like to be reminded of life’s depressing realities.

Urton, however, noted the homeless population isn’t going to magically disappear. Sheltering everyone isn’t feasible at this point because there aren’t enough beds— and she fears the problem will only grow worse due to COVID-19.

“I think we’re going to see an increase (in homelessness) when landlords start to demand back rent, when the eviction moratorium ends,” she said.

Urton added she believes the city and county deserve credit for their recent efforts.

“The city and county have done a ton during the pandemic,” she said. “We just don’t have enough affordable housing in Santa Clara County.”

Bruce Ives also praised local leaders. Ives is the chief executive officer of LifeMoves, a nonprofit that provides housing and other supportive services to the homeless.

“I don’t think we fully know yet all the impacts that COVID-19 is going to have on homelessness down the road,” he said. “…That’s part of why we are so grateful to see the city’s response, which will continue to help after the pandemic ends.”

Although it can be challenging to collect accurate data about homeless populations, the most recent count in San Jose indicated homelessness was moving in the wrong direction.

The count recorded 6,172 homeless individuals citywide in 2019,  which is an increase of 1,822 over 2017.

About 900 of these individuals completed a city survey. They identified six main reasons for homelessness: Lost employment (30%), alcohol or drug abuse (25%), a divorce or breakup (16%), an eviction (14%), an argument with family or friends (12%) or an incarceration (12%).

The majority (38%) lived outside. Others lived in shelters (21%), vehicles (17%), structures not meant for habitation (13%) or other (11%).

Eighty-three percent said they had resided in Santa Clara County prior to becoming homeless.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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