UC Berkeley scholar talks Silicon Valley homeless solutions

UC Berkeley scholar Christopher Herring spent more than a year living on the cold streets of San Francisco and Fresno, but on Thursday he huddled into a packed room at the Tully Library in San Jose to share his findings with Silicon Valley advocates eager for alternative solutions to the homelessness crisis.

Herring, a doctoral candidate, voluntarily lived in homeless encampments around the state to  understand the challenges that the unhoused community faces. In San Francisco, he received citations, was asked to “move along” and offered a bus ticket out of the city.

To gain a deeper understanding, Herring interviewed more than 14 city officials, 23 nonprofit providers, 20 advocates, 32 homeless individuals and participated in 23 ride-alongs with police officers.

“Once folks become homeless, what are the outcomes? How is it that the state makes some deserving and others undeserving — and why do we criminalize some and medicate others?” said Herring, who added that San Francisco’s “anti-homeless” laws, criminalization and mass incarceration, along with a lack of resources, has contributed to the growing crisis.

Herring outlined several solutions Silicon Valley leaders must embrace to combat the homeless epidemic — decriminalization, affordable housing and safe encampments, such as those in cities like Seattle, Portland and Fresno.

San Jose had a sanctioned homeless encampment called Hope Village, but residents were forced off the site after a land lease expired. Santa Clara County officials scrambled to find a new site — finally agreeing on a space in affluent Willow Glen — but the idea was squashed by public backlash.

The homeless residents — mostly women — were shuffled into motel rooms. Although South Bay service providers are working to find them new homes, Hope Village will not come back.

San Jose rolled out safe parking programs to provide homeless residents sleeping in their cars a secure space to stay for the night, but advocates say that’s not a long-term solution.

For those living outdoors, Herring also advocated for scheduled sweeps to help homeless residents plan when to move, instead of having their belongings thrown away by officials. He suggested placing public toilets and trash cans near those sites to reduce garbage and waste on the streets.

Local advocates and policymakers are yearning for stronger solutions to help Silicon Valley’s growing homeless population. The room inside the library on Thursday was filled with representatives from organizations such as Sacred Heart, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), the Affordable Housing Network and Housing Trust Silicon Valley, as well as county and city workers.

The presentation provoked many in the audience to question how to implement Herring’s solutions to fit San Jose’s needs.

“The solutions that other cities are doing haven’t been considered by the city and county here,” said David Hernandez, executive director for the nonprofit Opening Doors, which provides emergency housing and meal assistance to the homeless community.

“We need to work towards that by supporting an alternative solution created by a nonprofit that works in conjunction with the county and neighborhoods, rather than putting it all in the hands of policymakers,” added Hernandez. “But preliminary engagement is vital. A lot of times the community is the last to hear about it and that’s what gets people angry.”

Herring detailed the vicious cycle that homeless people experience when receiving citations in San Francisco for lodging on a sidewalk, the difficulty in finding housing or mental health services, and having to wait hours in line for a homeless shelter — without the guarantee of receiving a bed to stay in that night.

When a homeless person receives a citation and can’t pay it, those citations accrue more severe penalties — sometimes resulting in arrest warrants.

If arrested and released back on the streets, Herring added, that person’s formerly incarcerated status means that they no longer qualify for supportive or public housing programs, making it even more difficult for them to get off the streets.

Despite these findings, Herring said that local politicians and police officers are “not trying to criminalize” homeless people, but often push to “move them along,” even though 91 percent of those asked to leave a public space return to the same spot.

“There are not enough social workers and a lot of cops, so police become these service providers,” said Herring, adding that in San Francisco dispatch calls for homeless complaints in 2018 reached almost 8,000 calls — despite the population of homeless individuals remaining stagnant for the last few years.

The calls are spurred by an increase in urban development, gentrification and concerned NIMBY residents, said Herring.

Many San Jose advocates gathered Thursday agreed, saying that “harassing homeless out of the city” is not a solution and better steps need to be taken.

“How the homeless are treated here in San Jose is a travesty,” said Gail Osmer, a longtime homeless advocate who sits on the county’s Senior Care Commission. “They’re still sweeping encampments — the city is scared. It’s very sad with what’s happening. We all learned something here, but it’s a long road and we have to do better.”

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

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