San Jose is opening two temporary overnight warming centers to provide shelter for unhoused residents as temperatures continue to dip.
The City Council voted unanimously this week to restart the annual program. The city picked two new locations this year, the Evergreen Branch Library on Aborn Road and the Leininger Center on Senter Road—both located in East San Jose. They will open Friday night, three days ahead of schedule, the city announced.
Each center will serve 30 people every night through the end of April, adding a total of 60 shelter beds during the cold winter season. HomeFirst, a frequent nonprofit partner with the city and Santa Clara County, will manage both sites. The Evergreen Library will accept walk-ins this weekend, then both centers will operate on a referral system through the region’s centralized hotline, which will reduce lines and loitering, officials said.
The centers will have storage space, allow pets inside, provide meals and accept individuals with substance use disorders and mental health issues. Those who need to travel to the centers will get bus tokens, the city said.
Urgent need for shelter
San Jose opened its first warming locations in 2015 when the city declared a “shelter crisis.” The declaration allows the city to turn publicly-owned buildings into temporary shelter under state law. In 2019, lawmakers unanimously approved expanding the program to operate every night during the winter months in response to the city’s growing homelessness crisis.
This winter season, the warming centers will be open for more than 130 consecutive nights, San Jose’s Homelessness Response Manager Kelly Hemphill said at a meeting this week.
“The combination of cold weather and the increase in variants of the COVID-19 virus (creates) the urgency of adding more beds again this season,” Hemphill said.
The program has served roughly 3,000 people since 2015, with more than 1,400 of them given shelter last year during the pandemic. That barely makes a dent in the crisis.
According to data from San Jose, 84% of the unhoused population in the city, or 5,117 people, are living on the streets without any shelter, which includes not having a car or RV to live in. With only 1,500 shelter beds in the city, thousands are left to brave the cold and rainy season—some have died due to exposure.
Delayed opening, inaccessible locations
The opening of the warming centers is much later this year, drawing backlash and frustration from advocates and unhoused residents.
"People are living in despicable conditions," advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight, adding she's been at the camps to give out blankets and sleeping bags. "People's lives are in danger."
San Jose officials acknowledge the city is behind on its program, as both the housing department and its partner HomeFirst are short-staffed. The program also is delayed because officials focused on finding safe parking locations instead.
"So we're busy and we're down a few members of the team," Housing Deputy Director Ragan Henninger said at the meeting.
The warming center locations are also a point of contention, as many said they are not accessible to the most vulnerable on the streets.
"Why are they opening stations where there's hardly any encampments?" Osmer said of the Evergreen Library location. "That's way out of the way."
Advocate RJ Ramsey also criticized the location choices, which he said leave more than 250 unhoused people in South San Jose with no nearby options or services.
"There's nothing close by that people can just walk to," Ramsey told San José Spotlight. "People don't have a car or bus fares. They don't even have a phone to call."
San Jose spent months scouring for shelter spaces before selecting the two locations in East San Jose, officials said. The city tries to utilize different city-owned buildings each year to minimize impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.
San Jose had warming locations in Districts 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 in the past. The two sites for this season were finalized after the city met with nearby residents earlier this month.
"We want to ensure that we're being good neighbors and responding to community concerns," Hemphill said, adding the city has a hotline for any concerns at the warming centers. "We were very happy that there was overwhelming support for the program in both of the neighborhoods."
Councilmember Dev Davis, whose district was used for warming locations in previous years, applauded the efforts.
"This program has really changed over the last few years," she said at the meeting. "I really appreciate our ability to be able to do overnight warming locations and to do them in a way that benefits not only the neighbors, but also the clients."