San Jose is slow to tackle growing homelessness problem

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Despite decades of sustained efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the homeless crisis in San José continues to worsen, leaving residents, officials and advocates frustrated.

For some homeless residents of Columbus Park, San José’s largest settlement, the solution to their problem is simple: provide them with housing.

“Everyone here wants to live in a house,” said Steve, who has lived on the streets of San Jose for 31 years and did not provide his last name. “Who wouldn’t? “

Politicians and housing activists agree with Steve that housing is the key to solving the crisis. However, how to get there is complicated.

“If anyone had a quick fix, they would have solved it already,” board member Sergio Jimenez told the San José Spotlight. “It’s a challenge.”

A growing crisis

The number of homeless residents in San Jos̩ has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2019, the number reached nearly 7,000 people. No one knows for sure how many more people have been pushed onto the streets in the past two years because the county canceled its biennial homeless tally in January over concerns over COVID-19. But advocates say more people are living along the creek, under bridges and in city parks than ever before Рa problem exacerbated by COVID-19.

“Every time we went out to camps, it was like, ‘Who are these people?’ Homeless Advocate Shaunn Cartwright said. “There were always new people during COVID. “

A campsite in Columbus Park. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

As homelessness skyrockets, tensions between homeowners and the homeless population are at an all time high. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition to end a plan to allow homeless people – who were swept from vacant Apple property in North San Jose – to sleep in their cars at a sanctioned site. city. In another camp in southern San Jose, someone sent fake police notices last month to scare the homeless. The owners nearby were the alleged culprits.

The crisis is fueled by the high cost of living and skyrocketing rents. San José is the second most expensive place to rent in the country, according to new estimates. There are only 34 affordable housing units available for 100 very low income households in Santa Clara County.

The officials cannot keep up. For each person housed, association leaders say that two more become homeless.

“The challenge we have is due to the lack of affordable housing and the lack of political will to create enough affordable housing,” Jen Loving, Executive Director of Destination: Home, told San José Spotlight. “We continue to have people who become homeless from year to year. “

Loving added that lawmakers must muster the political will to pass policies that increase housing density, such as Opportunity Housing, which allows up to four new units to be built on land zoned for single-family homes.

“For every council member who said we have a homeless crisis, why aren’t they aggressive in building affordable housing in their neighborhoods? Loving said. “We don’t want to change our zoning to build more housing. “

Serious housing shortage

Despite its commitment to build 10,000 affordable homes by 2023, San José is far behind. As of this year, the city has completed 506 affordable housing units since 2018. Santa Clara County is also behind its affordable housing target of 4,800 units, according to a recent audit.

The reasons: construction costs are too high, land is scarce and it takes too long, government officials lamented. According to Mayor Sam Liccardo during a panel in May, he costs around $ 800,000 to build permanent housing.

“If there’s one particularly difficult barrier in our area, it’s the cost of land and labor,” said Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the San Jose Housing Department. “We have to be creative when it comes to finding places to build affordable housing.”

The city says it will continue to tackle the inequalities that lead people to homelessness by expanding safety net programs, adopting a living wage in the city, among other initiatives.

Last year, San Jose adopted a three-pronged plan that serves as a guideline on how it tackles the homelessness crisis. The plan outlines how to tackle the disparity that disproportionately affects people of color and prevent homelessness.

“You don’t undo 50 years of growing income inequality, wages, building deeply affordable housing, systemic racism in a minute,” Loving said. “It takes time.”

What was done

Six years ago, Santa Clara County, San Jose and local organizations, such as Destination: Home and LifeMoves, have started working together to deal with the crisis, Loving said.

“We’ve all said we need to focus on ending homelessness rather than just managing it and everyone wants to work together, which seems obvious,” she said. “But until then, that was not what was happening.”

More than 14,000 people received housing in the first five years of the partnership, according to Scott.

A resident of Second Street Studios, San Jose's first permanent supportive housing project, is pictured in this file photo.
A resident of Second Street Studios, San Jose’s first permanent supportive housing project, is pictured in this file photo.

In 2020, the city opened Second Street Studios after months of delay. The downtown complex housed some of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless and disabled people in the area.

Public-private partnerships with the tech giants of Silicon Valley have become more common in recent years. Housing Trust Silicon Valley has raised $ 117 million from Cisco, Google, LinkedIn, among others via its TECH fund for affordable housing since 2017.

This week, San José and Santa Clara County officials unveiled a new partnership with Evangelical Lutheran Emmanuel Church of San José to build 108 affordable housing units on the church’s vacant lot on Moorpark Avenue. It is the first time that the city has used a place of worship to house the homeless.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Destination: Home ran a cash assistance program that distributed more than $ 50 million to help 17,000 households. About 4,800 people took to the streets, Loving said.

The city, with the help of state and federal funds, has also set up just over 1,000 people in motels during the pandemic.

“It gave them a bit of space or extra time so they didn’t have to be on the streets,” Jimenez said.

San Jose is home to five temporary housing sites – on Maybury Road, Avenue Felipe, and three emergency sites built during the COVID-19 pandemic on Bernal Road, Evans Lane and Ferrari Street and 101. Some are tiny homes, while others are modular or manufactured homes.

The city bypassed long regulatory steps as part of a COVID-19 emergency declaration to build the three emergency interim housing communities with more than 300 beds.

The 40 cottages are located at the intersection of Mabury Road and Highway 101 in northeast San Jose. Photo file.

City officials estimate these projects to be much faster and cheaper to build, at $ 85,000 per unit. But the rush to build the units presented new challenges: at least one of these projects was plagued with violations such as salary theft and security risks.

“I’m not saying it’s good enough,” Loving said. “But when people say nothing is working, it is factually incorrect. When people say nothing is done, it is factually incorrect.

More work to do

But there are still many solutions that San José has not tried.

In May, the council unanimously rejected plans to establish a sanctioned camp, despite appeals from lawyers. Few of the council members wanted to host a legalized homeless camp in their districts. And the housing department said it didn’t have the resources to run one.

Establishing safe parking sites has also been an uphill battle.

Many homeless residents say they just want a stable place to stay to maintain their independence. For some, a motorhome will do.

“If the city gives me that, I swear they’ll never see me here again,” said Patricia, who grew up playing baseball in Columbus Park and now sleeps in her van with a partner on the other side. ground. She did not give her last name.

Patricia puts everything she owns into a van where she and her partner sleep. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Despite some progress, San Jose still fails to provide affordable housing for its residents. Over the past three years, 14,742 market-priced housing units have been approved, built and completed, about 4.8 times more than affordable units.

“It’s not a homelessness crisis, it’s a housing crisis,” Cartwright said.

Pilot programs that create transitional housing could be helpful, Cartwright said, but permanent housing remains a key element in solving the crisis.

“We need our elected officials to be ready to say that they are no longer prepared to vote on pilot projects and only ready to vote on large projects that will help our people who are homeless or in precarious housing situations”, a- she declared.

SJSU sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton said San Jose needs to ask the tech giants in its garden to start paying their fair share to solve a problem they have helped.

“We need rent subsidies and we need to build massively,” he told the San José Spotlight. “And don’t tell me there’s no money in this community… Our tech community is building and building more office space. But what about our community?

Editor’s Note: Jen Loving sits on the San José Spotlight Board of Directors.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.


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