San Jose city leaders consider competing visions to serve growing homeless population

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With their life’s belongings piled into a rusted supermarket cart, a middle-aged couple cuddles on a grassy patch of downtown San Jose. Two blocks away, at the corner of First and San Fernando, a gray-haired man crouches under a store awning to hide from the midday sun. Hundreds of others form a makeshift tent city off Story Road, an encampment that floods from rain and poses a fire threat when dry. Even the inhabitants call it “The Jungle.”

This is a snapshot of homelessness in San Jose, where an estimated 65 percent of Santa Clara County’s 7,000-plus homeless people are concentrated. By the city’s count, the population has grown 18 percent in the past two years, prompting divergent visions for how San Jose should respond.

The San Jose Downtown Association, a business-oriented group, has proposed measures such as a shopping cart ban, the creation of a downtown homeless service center, and changes to the city’s “sit and lie” ordinance that regulates how long and where someone can loiter in parks or on a public bench.

At the same time, the City Council is considering a proposal by two top city staff members who want to expand housing options for those living without a roof. The plan includes leasing a large number of rooms from hotel owners, known as master leasing, and making them available to homeless people. Another concept involves the conversion of abandoned or old hotels and motels into single-occupancy residences.

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Director of Housing Leslye Corsiglia sees significant potential in the master leasing option. She said talks have begun with the county for funding a pilot venture that would serve “as a landing place for people who are homeless right now.”

As for hotel and motel conversions, this would require rezoning properties and raising money from the private sector. The proposal by Corsiglia and Joseph Horwedel, the city’s director of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement, takes a look at a former hotel on Almaden Avenue. Corsiglia projects a three- to five-year timetable for significant progress.

Based on a case study the city officials performed, it could cost $4.32 million to convert a 24-room property, or $180,000 per room.

Corsiglia hopes to near completion of a master leasing pilot program in “a few months” — provided that funding, renovations and negotiations with hotel owners succeed. The master leasing option is set to cost $16,425 per year per person housed, with an added one-time fee of $3,500 per room, totaling $398,500 a year, the proposal says.

With support from City Council member Sam Liccardo of District 3, these recommendations were formally presented to the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee on Sept. 23.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Association believes that its Strategic Action Plan, if adopted, will improve the city’s core. Homelessness is an issue among the group’s 10 highlighted topics. “An intractable problem in many major U.S. cities, San Jose must be proactive to keep these conditions from increasing in its downtown and neighborhoods,” the plan states.

Of particular concern is what the association deems an increase in the visibility of homeless people setting up tents in parks, laying on sidewalks and creating encampments. Along with the shopping cart ban, the association proposes a “zero tolerance” approach to the downtown encampments. In addition, it wants the city to measure the effectiveness of downtown outreach by homeless service organizations.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty objects to the proposed shopping cart ban, defining it as the criminalization of homelessness. Local homeless advocates such as Chris Richardson agree with Corsiglia’s focus on developing permanent housing.

“There’re more homeless people in this county than housing units,” said Richardson, the director of program operations for Downtown Streets Team. “Until we build more housing, [homelessness is] going to be a downtown issue, a San Jose issue. We need more housing, period.” Downtown Streets Team is an organization that cleans homeless encampments, providing an opportunity for homeless people to participate in that process and benefit from services such as case management and transportation assistance.

Other resources come from EHC LifeBuilders, an organization that provides a host of homeless services including temporary shelter, transitional housing and permanent housing assistance; and Destination: Home, a public-private partnership.

Virtually every day, the number of men, women and children are increasing at EHC’s Boccardo Reception Center, a San Jose shelter, according to center manager Linda Jones. One of those residents is a middle-aged woman named Tracy, who was willing to tell her story if identified by first name only. Tracy said she holds a part-time job at Target and does her best to save money in hopes of being able to afford her own place again. Concerned about the increasingly expensive housing market, she hopes that, after six months at the Boccardo Center, her life will return to what she once knew.

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