Op-Ed: Down and Out in Silicon Valley’s ‘Super Bowl City’

In the buildup to Super Bowl 50, much ado was made of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s comments that the city’s homeless were “going to have to leave” town for the week. Major media coverage of the issue was abundant, thorough, and richly deserved.

Yet, a scant 50 miles away in Santa Clara County—the actual site of last week's big game, and home to one of the nation’s largest homeless populations—it was “don't ask, don't tell” when it came to media coverage on the issue. And the silence was deafening.

Eric Victorino, who plays in local band The Limousines, has been doing his part to shed a light on the matter. Last week, he posted on his Facebook page video footage of a homeless encampment alongside Highway 280’s Seventh Street exit in downtown San Jose, not 10 miles from Levi's Stadium, where the game took place.

Camps like the one in Victorino’s video are common along the region’s major roadways. But for many of the 100,000 or so people visiting from out of town for the Big Game, homelessness is all but guaranteed to remain invisible for the duration of the festivities. Still, Victorino perseveres, posting videos of other encampments across the web.

“People need to see this before the city cleans it up temporarily, putting a Band-Aid on the problem instead of actually fixing it,” he lamented to viewers. “You have all of these billions of dollars here, but nobody seems willing to come up with any type of solution.”

While his assessment might not be entirely accurate, it’s certainly justifiable. In the last several months, there seems to have been a lot of talk among city and county officials about what to do for the region’s nearly 7,000 homeless—but not a lot of action.

Last September, several members of the San Jose City Council issued a memo to Mayor Sam Liccardo with a number of recommendations on how to handle setting up the city for Super Bowl week, including how to handle the homeless.

More reflective of tone than of action, the memo encouraged the mayor to “maintain the basic civil rights of our homeless population … with dignity and compassion,” and it stressed that any plans to deal with the issue first be brought before the attention of the council.

And so they were. Shortly after the memo was released, San Jose, in conjunction with the county, approved plans to expand shelter space and public services for the area’s homeless.

More than $13 million was allocated to purchasing and/or renovating hotels and motels for temporary shelters and long-term housing, and another $3.8 million went to expand ongoing programs.

Smaller amounts were also dedicated to more experimental programs, among which was the idea of legal campground for the homeless. Cities like Phoenix and Seattle have tested the idea with limited success. It’s hardly a perfect solution. But, as part of a coordinated effort involving things like housing, rehabilitation and job training programs, sanctioned homeless camps have great potential.

Meanwhile, inclement weather and the looming presence of Super Bowl week demanded more immediate action. In December, the city declared a “shelter crisis,” which suspended some restrictions on housing standards to turn public buildings and churches into temporary shelters.

Nearly half a million dollars was dedicated to San Jose nonprofit HomeFirst to manage the crisis program, enough to house 100 people a night for 30 days across a variety of locations. That in itself was a significant accomplishment, although not without condition: the city's program was sanctioned to activate only during National Weather Service alerts for extreme conditions, which in this region are intermittent at best. There's been no word since as to the success of the program, or whether it remains active.

During this time, the idea of sanctioned encampments was raised once again, with four out of the six members of the City Council signing on to the idea.

“There's a lot of good reasons not to do it,” Councilman Don Rocha told reporters at the time. “But what we're doing now, in my opinion, is not enough.”

Councilman Chappie Jones seconded the motion. “We have programs that will address the issues...[b]ut we have an immediate crisis,” he told the press. “The homeless population doesn't have the time.”

Mayor Liccardo, however, was resistant to the idea, citing failures in Sacramento and Seattle as arguments against sanctioned encampments. “My concern about this idea is it has not worked. … The question is, are we going to make people more safe or less safe?”

The mayor’s claims were dubious.

Sacramento claims to have never operated a sanctioned encampment; in 2009, an encampment sprung up unannounced on public land operated by a local utility company, and was summarily broken up by city officials. Furthermore, Seattle's first city-sanctioned encampments had only been open for a few weeks at the time of the mayor’s comments, with the program showing considerable and immediate promise.

“[Sanctioned encampments] offer them a safe and hygienic place to stay,” Anthony King, a volunteer with Silicon Valley De-bug, told reporters at the time. “They can focus on other things like finding a job or concentrating on their housing search.”

In addition, heightening the concentration—and thereby, the visibility—of the area’s homeless population, while a legitimate health and safety concern among city officials, could be critical in bringing more attention and resources to bear in dealing with the crisis.

Nonprofit organizations have until Feb. 16 to submit proposals for sanctioned encampments to the city or the county. How long it will take to implement the solutions that are chosen remains to be seen. In the meantime, the city’s homeless will continue to band together whenever they can, wherever they can.

“People don't evaporate,” Robert Aguirre, a former resident of ‘The Jungle’ homeless encampment, told the website Upvoted last month. “You can’t put them on a shelf and wait five years to figure out what you are going to do with them.”

This article has been updated.

Randle Aubrey is a lifelong Bay Area resident and the proprietor of the political commentary blog SOAPBOX, as well as a co-host on Face For Radio, a weekly pop culture podcast. You can find SOAPBOX at www.getuponit.org, and Face For Radio at www.echoplexmedia.com.

23 Comments

  1. One of my friends came up with an interesting concept. Make homelessness “Illegal” Before everyone goes all knee jerk on this, let me explain.

    When a drug addict goes to court for sentencing, a judge usually tells them, “Get into a program to get off drugs.”

    If a homeless person goes to court, there’s never any stipulation from the judge for a homeless person to “Get into a program to help reintegrate you into society”

    As a lot of people here (especially SJO) have pointed out, a lot of these folks enjoy the lifestyle. There is no negative reinforcement in place to make them want to do otherwise. There’s plenty of positive reinforcement, but actions without consequence, insert witty old timey saying here.

    Personally, I think we should make some programs that involve some form of public works. Mt Uhminum needs a cleanup crew, and there’s already housing that could be made livable with a little elbow grease. County has vast tracks of farmland sitting idle, no reason we can’t put up a few trailers and get these folks tending crops.

    But as long as we tell them they can “live on the streets here without impunity” they will…

    • RMC,
      Lots of merit to your idea, and it worked before. Elmwood began as SCC’s poor farm where the indigent were sent as was customary at the time. Agnews was available for the mentally ill and unsuitable for Elmwood. While far from perfect, those responses provided more help at a much lower cost than what we have today.

      The Salvation Army operates much like poor farms. Their rehab programs require residents to work, learn skills, and depart after a few months. They are the only organization I’m aware of that tracks clients afterwards and publishes statistics on outcomes. They encourage graduates to return to volunteer help. And unlike other homeless organization executives, their staff salaries are very low.

      I don’t share their religious beliefs, but admire their outcome-oriented approach, practicality, and frugality.

    • Ae you out of your mind? Mt Uhminum doesn’t have a 7-11 or liquor store. How will many of the homeless survive?

  2. Its just as much a @scvwd,@valleywater , as they have ripped up the creeks to live there i have posted 100s of videos, yet the district who taxed us use volunteers to clean the creak. The clean safe creeks program uses less than 1% on creeks. its water district and city problem they have carved 10×10 homes into the banks its not there fault its scvwd/city as they refuse to help them.
    https://plus.google.com/photos/104810566457261206471/albums/5841291414139606865 pics 11th st
    https://plus.google.com/photos/104810566457261206471/albums/5824186116367046161 videos

    I have taken and posted 100s of videos and pictures

  3. Make homelessness “Illegal”

    What in the world are you talking about, Michael, regarding an area where people working forty plus hours a week can no longer afford housing – an area where the populations of “legal’ minorities, females, and those over 40, are increasingly decreasing, and have not even likely ever equaled the national averages -despite the utter lie that Silicon Valley is a bastion of meritocracy (unless meritocracy means sociopathic swindlers) and equality – for decades.

    It figures someone like you would be lying in wait to be the first to comment. Hard at work at your job, are you? Multitasking? Paid to comment on Homlessness OpEds? because those trying to evade falling through those cracks are, and they don’t have your special privilege – during what are considered normal work hours – to post ugly, approaching on sadistic, lengthy comments [1] on a piece regarding the horrifying state of homelessness amongst stunningly undeserving megalomaniacal billionaires whose finger wagging prescriptions to others for surviving are the exact opposite of what they did.

    You ought to be ashamed of yourself. How dare you.

    [1] As to why I have the time to post, I was utterly mowed over as a female over 50, with great qualifications as to my once profession, having nightmares every single night about potential homelessness.

    • I have worked hard my whole life. Still, I fear homelessness in this valley, where the cost of living skyrockets as I type. I do not want to be made to feel ashamed for the home, or family I have worked for and dedicated my life to. Most of the homeless that roam our neighborhood are mentally ill, drunk, or drug addicts. They urinate and defecate in our yards, and scream profanity whenever and where ever. They loiter and panhandle, and threaten you when you won’t comply. Most of us see that face of homelessness, not the families.

      • We could start up homeless services organizations for fun and profit.

        Downtown Streets provides job training and services for homeless. Almost entirely funded by City of San Jose and other communities where it operates. The Exec Director Diane Richardson, earned almost $141K in 2014. Similar salaries at many homeless services organizations (exception: SJ Salvation Army head earns less than $20K). Source IRS 990 forms.

        Only a small number participate in Downtown Streets, fewer still continue to become self-sufficient. The chronic homeless rarely respond to conventional services.

        The primary beneficiaries of homeless programs are government employees and services providers. Wish it were otherwise, but virtually no proven strategies or tangible impacts.

  4. (and, talk about knee jerk responses, Robert Michael Cortese, while being the ultimate of (paid?) first responder knee jerkers. Your words, [specially exempted] kneejerker Robert Michael Cortese:

    …Before everyone [excepting me, Robert Michael Cortese – diane] goes all knee jerk on this, let me explain.

    I spent over two hours not knee jerk comment posting to your horrid – the very first to knee jerk – post, posted just a few minutes after the Homelessness Op Ed was posted. You really may not want to know what my first kneejerk was, because if you were a decent human it would make you feel like the real despicable Silicon Valley ‘a hole’ you appear to be, in your – topper of the commenters! – kneejerk.)

    • Wow how do you do that quote? Is that blockquote?

      (and, talk about knee jerk responses, Robert Michael Cortese, while being the ultimate of (paid?)

      Let’s see if that works. Else, I’ll just do my usual quoting the rest of my response. No I’m not paid, I just have a lot of peoples opinions floating in my head.

      [1] As to why I have the time to post, I was utterly mowed over as a female over 50, with great qualifications as to my once profession, having nightmares every single night about potential homelessness.

      If it took you 2 hours to craft your responses, no wonder you think I do this all day. As someone who once spent a few months homeless, and eagerly jumped at the opportunity to not be, I have a hard time understanding how some people would want to stay homeless year after year.

      I lived your nightmare when I was 16 lady. In one day it will be my 27th anniversary of that long term of homelessness. How come I remember February 10th so well? My mother kicked me out on my birthday of all days.. My birthday was spent trying to build a shelter so I wouldn’t freeze on the streets.

      All I gotta say is thank god there are programs like Bill Wilson house out there, and shame on those that refuse to take the help available to them.

  5. As someone who once spent a few months homeless, and eagerly jumped at the opportunity to not be, I have a hard time understanding how some people would want to stay homeless year after year.

    most bullies (and certainly swindlers) do have a hard time understanding why someone who ends up long term homeless wasn’t willing to bully and verbally degrade someone else on their knees, in order to save themselves, you’re clearly no exception.

    • most bullies (and certainly swindlers) do have a hard time understanding

      Hehe you think I’m a bully. You’re funny with you namecalling. Nowhere do I verbally degrade anybody, but you sure have some names for me! Oh boy! Yes you do! Sorry, I can’t do what you’re doing… Just seems to be a tad off the course of discussion. Hey! I have an idea!

      Question Diane, when is the last time you actually went out and served the homeless? It’s been about a year for me. I was giving out food, drink, socks to everyone and kotex for women. Probably did 8 or so trips like that last year here in SJ, SF, Modesto and Stockton.

      Throwing your words back at you, bullying and verbally degrading me on SJI does not serve the homeless. Try and step up your game lady.

  6. Nowhere do I verbally degrade anybody

    I guess you haven’t verbally degraded anyone; other than suggesting in the very first comment above – posted within a few minutes in a knee jerk response to the above Homelessness Op Ed – that those who become homeless should automatically be declared criminals (which is what declaring something illegal actually means), utterly destroying any remaining prospects for anything approaching a living wage job?

    It probably would have been more appropriate of me to state that you criminalized and horrified, versus degraded, people?

    oh, and as regards this:

    Try and step up your game lady.

    huh??????? the devastating nastiness in Silicon Valley is a game to you Bob?.

    Goodbye, creep.

    • huh??????? the devastating nastiness in Silicon Valley is a game to you Bob?.

      Oh come now Diane, everyone knows “Game” is a metaphor for “Effort” and in reference to my good deeds towards the homeless, my efforts have been notable. Again, where are your efforts other than berating me on SJI?

  7. > In addition, heightening the concentration—and thereby, the visibility—of the area’s homeless population, while a legitimate health and safety concern among city officials, could be critical in bringing more attention and resources to bear in dealing with the crisis.

    Well, there you have it.

    “Homelessness” is a publicity stunt to gain “attention and resources”.

    “Resources” equals CASH which goes into somebody’s pocket.

  8. Who is making money off the homeless population?
    A governement grant here, a private award there and who has actually benefitted? Salaried administrators and politicians.
    How long will the gulag in San Francisco stay in place?
    Has there been any enduring benefit to the community after the Super Bowl hype? Homeless people were and are clearly visible along the train tracks in Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

  9. Even in a utopian society, there will always be a minimum of 10 percent of people who, for whatever varying reasons, cannot take care of themselves and end up homeless. It is absolutely our responsibility as human beings who can take care of ourselves to help the people who can’t. Making homelessness “illegal” and having homeless people arrested and processed as criminals will not help the homeless at all. Our criminal justice system is not set up to decide how the homeless are helped. Homeless people are not criminals and should not be put through a legal system that has become almost a joke, beneficial to neither the criminals nor the victims but rather has become simply a work place for attorneys to make $500 an hour. Our courts are already so bogged down with actual criminals it’s hard for me to believe that any intelligent person would think it’s a good idea to add the huge number of homeless people to that ever-increasing burden.

    Michael, you say there there should be “negative reinforcement” in place for being homeless to encourage the “many who enjoy the lifestyle” to “make them want to do otherwise.” For someone who claims to have spent time as a homeless person yourself, that’s a pretty judgmental statement to make. There may be some who “enjoy the lifestyle,” but those make up a very low percentage of homeless people. Many, many more are homeless due to some sort of physical and/or mental condition that makes it very difficult for them to hold down jobs. And many, many, many others, including entire families, were forced into homeless situations due to losing their jobs and then their homes during what our politicians keep referring to as a recession when in actuality it is a depression. What maybe should have happened with that situation is that all of the big banks and Wall Street who fled with the four trillion “missing” dollars from our economy should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law and forced to use all of their stolen money to get all of the homeless people they were directly responsible for back on their feet. The people responsible for the economic crisis in this country are the criminals, not the homeless people who took the brunt of their criminal acts. So why don’t we concentrate on some “negative reinforcement” for these actual criminals who stole peoples’ jobs and homes and futures rather than turn homeless people into criminals.

  10. From my observations and experience, long term and perpetual homelessness tends to be a result of one or a combination of the following issues: substance abuse, mental illness, past criminal behavior.

    A sanctioned encampment would be a terrible idea unless it came with a set of strict, enforceable rules, extra funding for law enforcement, and on-site resources for mental health, medical care and employment & education assistance.

    Go over to Home First/Emergency Housing Consortium and you will see that there are some people succeeding there along with many more who use the hub of other homeless, mentally ill and drug/alcohol addicted people as a means to further their addictions and side step responsibility or rehabilitation. You will also notice that Police/Fire& Emergency Medical Services are typically responding here multiple times a day, throughout a 24 hour period.

    By contrast go to Salvation Army on 4th street and you will see that there are mostly motivated individuals abiding by rules and putting in a very respectable effort towards improving their situation. These are by no means perfect examples, but if the city could replicate a program like this, there would be a considerable drop in homelessness.

    A dirty word amongst proponents of rehabilitation seems to be “relocation.” It’s no secret that many people cannot afford to survive here, and in combination with some of their other plights, they likely never will. This is where relocation comes in. Migration has been seen throughout society since just about the beginning of time, so why is it so taboo all of the sudden? If a program could be established to bring employable people to places where their skills could be used and they could afford to survive there, why are we not exploring this as an option? I’m not saying that we should just ship the problem away.. But if someone busts their rear here to get sober, get healthy and make themselves employable, they are still very unlikely to find employment that will suffice for them to continue toward even meager prosperity. If there were other places in the United States that would offer this possibility, why would we not pertner with them and give these people opportunities to go there?

    • > Migration has been seen throughout society since just about the beginning of time, so why is it so taboo all of the sudden?

      “Migration” is probably a taboo term because the “problem” was defined by someone like “Habitat for Humanity” who is in the business of building “homes”.

      My belief is that the so-called “homeless” are simply nomadic.

      Going through ridiculous gyrations to provide them with “homes” and mobile services that follow them around — like “on-site resources for mental health blah blah blah . . .” — is just extreme cultural blindness.

      The big hearts desperately want “the homeless” to appear to have settled, middle class life styles, whereas the ethos of “the homeless” is very different and far, far away.

      • If the homeless were simply nomadic, that would be great! Hell, as long as most of them could find crystal meth along their travel routes, they could probably make it out of California in a very short period of time.

        On a serious note.. I often encounter many homeless who simply cannot survive here no matter what they do. Short of buying a 30-40 year old Winnebago and just driving it from place to place living in squalor, they have no real prospects of finding housing in a 75 mille radius.

        The ones I encounter who are working tough jobs and have their names down on countless “affordable housing” waiting lists are definitely a small percentage of the whole, but I have to imagine there are employment opportunities available to them in other cities or States where they could actually afford to live. I’m sure making that transition wouldn’t be simple.. But that’s something these “advocates” could facilitate and it would be to the benefit of their “clients.”

        • If the Big Hearts are willing to provide food, shelter, housing, and mobile showers to those incapable of making a living in a competitive capitalist economy, the “homeless” will chose to be “homeless” in the sunny Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area rather than in Fargo, North Dakota.