Why San Jose killed sanctioned homeless encampments
San Jose police officers stand by as trash collection workers haul belongings out of a homeless encampment in March. File photo.

    The idea of creating legal tent cities for San Jose’s homeless people — or sanctioned encampments as they’re called — once again died inside the City Council chambers earlier this year.

    It isn’t the first time San Jose lawmakers flirted with the idea. In 2015, then-Councilmember Don Rocha led the charge to create encampments a year after authorities cleared “The Jungle,” a massive encampment that was home to 200 people.

    This time around, Councilmember Raul Peralez pitched the idea of temporary encampments in February as the COVID-19 pandemic continued its deadly toll in Silicon Valley. But just three months later, councilmembers shelved the idea — again. They worried about city resources to oversee encampments and whether they’ll be effective.

    Councilmember David Cohen said expansion of existing services is more appealing to lawmakers and the community compared to a single site that would only serve a fraction of the unhoused population.

    “Many residents want us to sweep these homeless encampments away,” he said. “And I have to remind people that unless we have an official place for them to go and places to bring people who are swept, then it doesn’t do any good because it just removes the problem from one location to another. Eventually people come right back to the same place again anyway.”

    Indeed, a recent San José Spotlight report in Aprl highlighted how the city has led or participated in 98 homeless sweeps since October 2020 — and how they’ve created a revolving door for residents who end up back there a few weeks later.

    But the idea of a city-sanctioned encampment with sanitation and other services continues to die at City Hall because few people want to host encampments in their neighborhood—nor is the housing department eager to run them.

    “Keep’m out of my neighborhood!” Ben Sanchez, an Alum Rock resident, wrote in a public Facebook group.

    Housing department officials told the City Council in May they could not afford to oversee an encampment without additional resources—as homeless prevention funds tied to COVID-19 relief are soon to dissipate. Yearly costs of overseeing an encampment could run as high as $1.5 million.

    The most recent proposals from city lawmakers didn’t outline any additional resources for the department, said Jacky Morales-Ferrand, director of housing. Other housing officials said they lack the resources to research the proposal further.

    Mayor Sam Liccardo said expanding the city’s existing homeless management programs would be the best way to go. The council voted unanimously to shelve the idea of sanctioned encampments.

    According to Santa Clara County’s latest homeless census published in 2019, 6,172 homeless people live in San Jose, an increase of 1,822 over 2017. The survey tallied 9,706 unhoused residents countywide—up from 7,394 individuals two years before.

    The topic of sanctioned encampments has become increasingly divisive over the years, even turning into political fodder for people trying to paint local legislators as loose on crime and blight.

    Elected officials say they’re subject to backlash over perceived support of the idea, including San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis. More than 1,400 residents petitioned her to withdraw support for establishing a homeless housing site in Willow Glen in 2019.

    “I think (proposals) would have to come from the community,” Davis told San José Spotlight, adding that she’s met with residents to correct misconceptions about unhoused communities.

    Residents want lawmakers like Davis to address the homelessness crisis, and for some people that just means pushing unhoused residents out of their neighborhoods.

    “Actually a lot of people are sympathetic. I don’t want to say there’s a limit to their sympathy, there is a balance to it,” Davis said. “They care about the plight of other people, but they’re not going to care more about somebody else than they do about themselves, and that’s human nature.”

    In 2018, an empty parking lot in Davis’ district became known as Hope Village, offering tent encampments to more than a dozen residents.

    It was dismantled six months later after the Federal Aviation Administration wanted it gone because allowing it to remain could’ve jeopardize federal grant funding. Willow Glen residents refused to have the encampment in their district as well, forcing Hope Village to dissipate.

    “There are a lot of people who are violent and need more care. People are getting more brazen out there and there’s a lot more vicious dogs,” said Deb Kramer, executive director of Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, a volunteer group that picks up trash along San Jose creeks. “You put all those things together, and it’s a lot more unsafe for people to be around.”

    But supporters say giving people a safe place to temporarily lay their heads without worrying about sweeps, along with security and services, can make a difference.

    “It’s about stability, and the feeling that you might be kicked out at any point in time, that’s really debilitating,” said Catalyze SV co-founder Alex Shoor. “So having a place to say, ‘Hey I’m trying to get out of here long term, but at least to try and help me, I’m allowed to be here’. I think that’s a really stabilizing force for folks.”

    Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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