San Jose made a bold move in December to help the city’s homeless population by implementing, for the very first time, a “shelter crisis” policy. This allows for the suspension of certain health, safety and building code provisions in order to use publicly owned buildings as temporary warming shelters during extreme weather.
The decision was prompted primarily by El Niño’s threat of heavy storms and potential floods along San Jose’s river’s and creeks, where homeless encampments tend to congregate. It also comes as part of a broader initiative to provide greater support to area homeless that has been gathering steam for some time.
San Jose is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of homeless residents, with the problem making national headlines in 2014 during the shut down of “The Jungle,” the city's largest and oldest homeless encampment. Since then, the city has moved forward on several programs geared towards reducing homelessness, including the exploration of more radical solutions, like sanctioned homeless encampments.
But these measures all take time to implement, and more urgent action was required.
“We've always had in our emergency operation plan this concept of warming centers,” Ray Bramson, San Jose's homelessness response manager, told me in a recent interview. “But it was never a deliberate design to try and help ... get [people] in at the worst possible times. So, [with] these shelters, we tried to set a lower bar.”
Plans were drafted up and the program, managed by local nonprofit agency HomeFirst, went live shortly thereafter. According to Bramson, things have been going well so far. “We are funded in total to provide 30 nights. To date, we’ve provided eight nights of shelter, and served 96 participants.’’
The temporary warming shelters—located at the Bascom and Tully community centers, the Washington United Youth Center and the Biblioteca Latinoamericana Branch Library—are activated based upon National Weather Services alerts for extreme cold or rain, with updates communicated to local homeless populations primarily through direct outreach by groups like HomeFirst.
“We have a strong indication of where to find people during inclement weather and inform them of the local shelters available,” said Rene Ramirez, director of services for HomeFirst, in an email. “We typically receive two to three days notice of an upcoming inclement weather episode, or extension of a called episode. We are able to activate our teams promptly … to set up each one of the sites within an hour.”
HomeFirst operates a telephone hotline for shelter alerts, but, so far, word of mouth has been the most effective means of communication.
“The objective is to connect them with resources that they might not otherwise receive because of their reluctance to visit shelters,” Ramirez said. “Face-to-face opportunities are always the best method to inform our community.”
Warming centers’ primary purpose is to provide refuge from inclement weather, but other amenities are provided. “We provide a mat and blankets, hot and cold beverages, and snack-type food,” Wagner said. HomeFirst, Bramson added, is also “able to connect particularly vulnerable clients with additional support, if requested.”
The city has waived certain restrictions on religious facilities, allowing them to operate as warming centers as well. Seven local churches have opened their doors to the homeless so far, expanding the reach of the program considerably. “Under the current ordinance, [religious facilities] are able to provide 35 days of shelter for 15 people per night,” Bramson said.
Religious facilities are not bound by the city’s National Weather Service alerts, allowing them to budget their time based upon other church operations. “Most participating churches have opted for continued operation over a sustained period with a planned rotation to other sites,” Bramson said, “essentially providing some level of coverage throughout the winter period.”
The shelter crisis declaration ends in June, so there are still plenty of opportunities for homeless people to take advantage of temporary warming shelters as the need arises. For more information, including ways you can help support the program, please visit the HomeFirst website at www.homefirst.org.