Three people standing in front of a chain link fence where a sign is hung reading "Mayor Mahan, you made a promise to protect the people of San Jose!" The person in the front, with long blonde hair and wearing black clothing, is holding a sign reading "$300mil Unaccounted For! Audit San Jose's Homeless Spending #SupportTheAudit" and another yellow sign beneath the hanging banner reads "Kids live here!"
About 50 people rallied against a city proposal to put a safe outdoor sleeping site for homeless residents at the intersection of Willow and Lelong streets in Willow Glen. Photo courtesy of Sali Schille.

Willow Glen residents are protesting a proposal to turn a vacant lot in their neighborhood into a city-sanctioned homeless encampment, or safe sleeping site.

About 50 people rallied Saturday at the intersection of Willow and Lelong streets against the idea, citing neighborhood issues they believe stem from nearby homeless residents. City officials have revisited the idea of safe sleeping sites as temporary housing solutions in the 2024-25 budget. Mayor Matt Mahan’s June budget message sets aside $10 million in Measure E funds for safe sleeping sites, and further discussion is planned at the June 18 San Jose City Council meeting.

Helen Hutchings has lived in Willow Glen for 28 years and said she’s seen homelessness increasing in her neighborhood and across the city. She said she’s not opposed to the idea of safe sleeping sites in general and wants to see the city come up with more solutions, but the proposed site is close to other homes in the neighborhood.

“We don’t want what comes with having a homeless camp in a neighborhood,” Hutchings told San José Spotlight. “We understand that these people need to be helped, they need to be provided services, but as it is, that’s not happening. And it shouldn’t be happening in a neighborhood.”

Group of people gathered on sidewalk in front of chain link fence surrounding empty lot
Willow Glen residents protest against a planned, sanctioned homeless encampment in their neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Sali Schille.

Hutchings said her and many of her neighbors have felt threatened by homeless residents in their area. Kathleen Almoslino, another Willow Glen resident, said her car has been broken into twice and suspects residents of a nearby homeless encampment, based on the footage from security cameras she has at her house.

About 50 homeless people live unsheltered along Guadalupe River close to the proposed safe sleeping site, according to an email sent to residents from the mayor and Councilmembers Dev Davis and Omar Torres. The email invited residents to a town hall in April to discuss the unsheltered encampment and safe sleeping site proposal.

Michael Morand, who was formerly homeless, said he wouldn’t want to stay at a safe sleeping site. He added that sanctioned encampments have tight restrictions, but easing rules might pose other problems for neighbors in the area, such as increases in crime.

“I think there needs to be some action done with regards to getting people into humane facilities, whether it be a shelter or hotel rooms, like where I’m at,” Morand told San José Spotlight. “Mixing people that have challenges with substance abuse or alcoholism or mental illness with people that don’t have those challenges, I don’t think is an effective way to handle the homelessness crisis.”

But Todd Langton, executive director of homelessness nonprofit Agape Silicon Valley and founder of the Coalition for the Unhoused of Silicon Valley, feels safe sleeping sites would be a quality of living improvement for people living in tents by the creek.

“We’ve gotta get away from the status quo, which is spend and waste a lot of money, and everybody working independent of each other,” Langton told San José Spotlight.

There are more than 500 unhoused residents living along San Jose’s creeks and rivers, according to estimates from Mahan’s June budget message. A city email following the town hall said the city would continue to explore a safe sleeping site at the intersection, but answered residents’ questions about the project as well, including the security and hygiene benefits of a safe sleeping site. The site would be fenced in and staffed with case managers and security officers, with amenities including showers, bathrooms and regular trash collection.

The email also said the city would sweep the existing encampment before the end of June, so Valley Water can perform erosion work along Guadalupe River.

“We must ensure that our efforts to restore the cleanliness of our waterways and uphold regulatory standards do not inadvertently displace unmanaged encampments into other residential areas within the city,” the email read.

The city also sent a follow up survey after the meeting. It received more than 300 resident responses as to whether they would accept a safe sleeping site in the neighborhood or would prefer the city do nothing. About 75% said they would prefer the city do nothing over establishing a safe sleeping site.

San Jose is home to 6,340 homeless people, according to the 2023 point in time count, though officials said the tally is often an undercount. The county has roughly 10,000 homeless people, and officials say for every one person they house two more are pushed onto the streets.

Davis, who represents the Willow Glen neighborhood, said the city will continue to keep residents engaged in supporting solutions to homelessness, including arranging a community advisory committee for the safe sleeping site. Hutchings said she would be interested in joining such a committee.

Almoslino said residents suggested alternative locations like the county’s fairgrounds and voiced frustration about the city’s network of nonprofit homeless support providers, who lack accountability according to a state audit. She said the survey’s choice between no changes or the sanctioned encampment was a “catch-22”, which felt like it was no choice.

Langton said the city and its partner nonprofits have to better communicate and explain the safe sleeping sites to residents in order to show the plans’ benefits. He was recently in a meeting with the city and other support service providers where they learned more details about the plan, which he said would help people off the streets safely — and, in turn, help the neighborhood.

“The bottom line (is) they’re already there and the disruption to the environment, the trash, the crime, is already going on in their neighborhood. Those encampments are not organized, they’re a mess,” Langton said. “Why not create a safe place for them to stay and get their lives in order.”

Previously, the lot was considered to be a possible relocation space for Hope Village, a homeless encampment previously located on Ruff Drive near San Jose Mineta International Airport. The encampment was dismantled in 2019 after the Federal Aviation Administration deemed it unsafe, and backlash from residents halted the relocation.

The two projects are only related in that they’re using the same location, Davis said. She added that outdoor sleeping sites will be important as part of the city’s larger network of supportive services, from providing basic needs like showers and bathrooms to increasing the city’s stock of permanent affordable housing.

“We remain solutions focused,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “We cannot do nothing, even if nothing is what some residents say they want.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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