Silicon Valley officials share solutions to growing homelessness

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Downtown San Jose residents and business owners are growing frustrated and concerned at what they see as an increase of homeless people who need immediate crisis intervention and mental health help.

The issue came to a boiling point this week after an unhoused person assaulted a San Jose Downtown Association worker while cleaning graffiti.

“Our groundwork staff have experienced more close calls, aggressive behavior and, unfortunately, several assaults by people living on our streets,” San Jose Downtown Association Board President Alan “Gumby” Marques said. “The processes in place currently are not solving the challenge at hand.”

Downtown San Jose Association Board President Alan “Gumby” Marques said an association worker was recently assaulted by an unhoused person. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

The San Jose Downtown Association invited local officials, police officers, business owners and residents to a Friday panel to discuss solutions to the homeless crisis that has exploded across the city. Over the pandemic, camps of various sizes have popped up around the downtown core, along waterways, in front of businesses and under highways.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who spearheaded declaring a mental health crisis in the county, said the answer to homelessness continues to be more housing. She praised recent efforts to address the issue, including the mobile crisis response team, the assisted outpatient treatment program under Laura’s Law and a mental health hotline—but noted these programs are not solutions to the crisis.

“We are not going to eliminate or even drastically ameliorate our population of unhoused residents if we do not build a great deal more housing,” she said.

Ellenberg also highlighted several housing developments in the pipeline—many of which are funded by Measure A, a $950 million housing bond passed by voters in 2016.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said the county needs more affordable housing for the low-income population. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Santa Clara County’s assisted outpatient treatment program, which started in February, continues to see a high demand for services, Behavioral Health Division Director Soo Jung said. The county is already looking to expand its operation, with plans to acquire a property to house homeless patients undergoing treatment later this year.

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“Without housing, we just cannot treat the whole person,” she said.

San Jose recorded more than 6,000 unhoused people on its streets in 2019. The county is working on an updated tally, but advocates and officials predict the number has skyrocketed over the last two years. San Jose attempted to control the sprawling issue through sweeps, while advocates logged a record number of 250 people who died on the streets last year.

Since March 2020, San Jose has housed 3,000 people, San Jose Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand said. But with every person getting into housing, two more fell through the cracks and into the streets, she said. The city recently added to its mental health crisis response efforts in downtown through a $1.2 million contract with nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).

The city, with an ambitious plan to have 1,000 emergency housing units by December, is slow in its progress. A housing site located on the police parking lot, which will provide 76 prefabricated homes, was set to open late summer but now it won’t be ready until October. The city is also in limbo with its Project Homekey applications, which could turn hundreds of old motel rooms into residences.

San Jose Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand said the city is building more emergency housing to meet demand. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San Jose is also running against the clock to clear out Columbus Park, the location of one of the largest homeless camps in the Bay Area. The encampment sits under the flight path of the Mineta San Jose International Airport, which violates Federal Aviation Administration mandates. If the encampment is not removed by June 30, the city risks losing federal funding.

The city has housed 64 individuals from the site, Morales-Ferrand said.

“Our commitment is to offer everyone on the site who’s currently there a housing solution,” Morales-Ferrand said, noting the plan still needs City Council approval.

Joshua DeVincenzi Melander, president of nonprofit Little Italy San Jose, said everyone has to be willing to work together to find solutions.

“We can’t have this lawlessness culture continue,” Melander said.

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

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