San Jose sees solutions to growing homelessness downtown

Downtown San Jose residents and business owners are growing frustrated and concerned about what they see as a rise in the number of homeless people who need immediate crisis intervention and mental health support.

The problem reached a boiling point this week after a homeless person assaulted a San Jose Downtown Association worker while cleaning up graffiti.

“Our field staff have experienced more close calls, aggressive behavior and, unfortunately, multiple assaults by people living on our streets,” said San Jose Downtown Association Chairman Alan “Gumby “Marks. “The processes in place currently do not solve the challenge.”

Downtown San Jose Association Board Chairman Alan “Gumby” Marques said a worker at the association was recently assaulted by a homeless person. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

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

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who led the declaration of 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, Laura’s Law Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program and a Mental Health Helpline, but noted that these programs are not solutions to the crisis.

“We’re not going to eliminate or even dramatically improve our population of homeless residents if we don’t build a lot more housing,” she said.

Ellenberg also highlighted several ongoing real estate developments, 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 began in February, continues to see high demand for services, said Soo Jung, director of the behavioral health division. The county is already looking to expand operations, with plans to acquire property to house homeless patients undergoing treatment later this year.

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

San Jose recorded nearly 7,000 people homeless on its streets in 2019. The county is working on an updated count, but advocates and officials predict the number has skyrocketed over the past two years. San Jose tried to control the sprawling problem with sweeps, while defenders recorded a record 250 deaths on the streets last year.

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

The city, with an ambitious plan to have 1,000 emergency homes by December, is slow to make progress. A housing site in the police parking lot, which will provide 76 prefabricated houses, was due to open in late summer, but will now not be ready until October. The city is also in limbo with its Project Homekey apps, which could turn hundreds of former 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 racing against time to clean up Columbus Park, the location of one of the Bay Area’s largest homeless camps. The camp is under the flight path of 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 housed 64 people from the site, Morales-Ferrand said.

“Our commitment is to provide everyone who is currently there with a housing solution,” Morales-Ferrand said, noting that the plan still needs to be approved by city council.

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

“We cannot continue this culture of anarchy,” Melander said.

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

David H. Henry