Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

San Jose Approves Encampments to Move 500 Homeless People

The City Council has approved a plan to move individuals now living along waterways to sites throughout the city over the coming year. The idea is encountering pushback from community members.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan looks at a homeless encampment as he hosts a walk-along at the Guadalupe River near Coleman Avenue in San Jose, California, on June 17, 2024. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Dai Sugano/TNS
The San Jose City Council has agreed to an ambitious plan to move about 500 homeless people living along waterways to sanctioned encampment sites throughout the city by the middle of next year — but it’s already gotten pushback from community members about its choice of locations.

At the direction of state regulators pushing the city to clean up its creeks and rivers, councilmembers voted unanimously this week to continue evaluating eight properties as potential locations for the managed camps, dubbed “safe sleeping sites” or “basic needs sites.” The number of final locations has yet to be determined.

The sites, which would host around 100 to 150 people each, could provide individual tents, food, toilets, showers, laundry and case management services, with at least limited site security or monitoring. Once the city gathers more feedback from local neighborhoods and identifies the final locations, it can begin building the sites and hiring service providers to manage them.

The city will need to move quickly. Under an agreement with state water officials, it’s expected to have 500 camping spots available by June 2025.

“This is not an easy task,” said Mayor Matt Mahan ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

The locations the city is considering include an area within Kelley Park near Senter Road, an empty lot at 14020 Almaden Rd. in South San Jose and a property near Highway 101 at 1157 East Taylor St., where squatters took over a city-owned home last year. The sites are a mix of properties owned by San Jose, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, about a dozen residents urged the council to remove a parking lot at Kelley Park from the list of possible sites. The lot is near a popular frisbee golf course and the local History Park museum.

“This site is more than just the loss of 270 parking spaces — it’s the viability of the function of the place,” said Mike Sodergren with the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. “There’s nowhere else to park.”

Ultimately, the council agreed to remove the parking lot from the list and work toward identifying another location within the park. It also decided to remove a site in South Coyote Valley, in part over concerns that it’s too far from where most homeless people are camped along city waterways.

Mariena Acosta moved to an encampment by the Guadalupe River after leaving another camp in Columbus Park, where local health officials recently identified a highly contagious bacterial infection outbreak. She said rats have begun to infest the riverside tent camp, and some people living there have gotten sick from washing in the water.

Acosta said she’d prefer help moving into housing, but if it came to it, she would likely accept a spot at a sanctioned camp. “Wow, another tent to move to,” she said sarcastically. “You’ve gotten so many people off the street, but you can’t get us off the street?”

The state agency forcing the city to act is the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has recently increased pressure on cities across the region to move encampments away from sensitive waterways.

After three rejections, the water board recently approved the city’s plan to drastically reduce the amount of trash and pollution flowing into its 140 miles of creeks and rivers. If local officials fail to meet their commitments to clean up the waterways by June 2025, the agency could fine the city tens of thousands of dollars per day.

The city estimates around 1,000 homeless people live in areas the water board has identified for cleanup. In addition to setting up sanctioned encampments, officials are working to erect hundreds more tiny homes and establish safe overnight parking spots so people cleared from the waterways have a place to go.

In total, San Jose has an estimated 6,340 homeless residents, about 4,400 of whom live in encampments, vehicles, or other places not meant for habitation. The rest stay in shelters.

San Jose wouldn’t be the first city to try sanctioned encampments. Local officials have pointed to a managed camp in San Diego, which provides individual tents and basic security and sanitation, as a successful model. However, a sanctioned camp that offers few services is under threat after the local district attorney labeled the site a public health hazard and sued the city to close it.

There’s also legal uncertainty about whether sanctioned encampments constitute the “adequate shelter” cities are expected to offer before clearing unmanaged camps. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has signaled it may overturn that requirement in a decision set for this month.

According to preliminary estimates, setting up the managed camps in San Jose could cost between $18,000 and $40,000 per tent. For 500 tent spaces, that comes to around $9 million to $20 million. Operational costs could run between $22,000 and $33,000 per person annually.

City officials did not offer a specific breakdown of the projected expenses. But in a draft of the city’s latest budget, officials highlighted cost concerns and noted the city might only be able to provide minimal services. The council has set aside $10 million for the sites over the next fiscal year.

Yet another challenge? Residents who don’t want the city bringing sanctioned encampments into their neighborhoods.

“Every site we have ever moved forward, and I think has ever moved forward in the history of any city in the United States, has had community opposition,” Mahan said in response to potential community concerns noted by Councilmember Bien Doan. “I think the question has been, ‘What are our overarching goals and obligations, including legal obligations?'”

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

From Our Partners