Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS epidemic. It took him six years and the death of almost 21,000 Americans before he ever said the word “AIDS” in public.
Last week, at the first San Jose City Council meeting to address the flood, after more than six hours, neither a single council member nor a city official said the word “homeless.”
Sure, there were several references to “vulnerable populations,” but it was fairly clear this was in reference to the Vietnamese and Latino populations impacted by the floods. Many of these folks are still in the shelters and repeatedly complained at the hearing about how sick and unsafe they felt.
Last year, we saw the homeless death rate nearly double from the prior year. One would expect the city to be sensitive to this fact, and provide outreach to the hundreds of folks who have been forced to live near the creeks due to unrelenting sweeps of homeless encampments. There’s also been a failure to adequately address the homelessness crisis by following through on ELI/VLI (extremely low-income and very low-income) policies.
The city knew a week in advance that flooding was likely and yet it didn’t properly warn its most vulnerable citizens. They put these people’s lives at risk by leaving them to be swept away like detritus. It’s fitting, that for a brief moment in time, the whole country focused on San Jose’s homeless population as people were being rescued from Las Lagos. The whole country saw our shame.
Even in light of the doubled death rate and the blatantly obvious abandonment of our homeless people during the flood, council members Johnny Khamis and Chappie Jones teamed up to try and take the Commercial Impact Fee off of the council’s list of priorities last week, because “developers have too many fees.” Let’s remember, Khamis frequently opposes housing for the homeless and rent control measures, and Jones supported the displacement of 672 residents living in 216 rent controlled units—which will not be replaced—at The Reserve Apartments. The eviction date is April 1.
There are a few champions of the homeless on the council. Raul Peralez, whose downtown district has the most encampments, has pushed to build more housing for the homeless. He’s tried to rally the community around the housing and I’m selfishly stoked to be living in District 3. Tam Nguyen went to Portland and spent the night in Right 2 Dream Too, a sanctioned encampment. Don Rocha has been a tireless champion for the homeless and he represented the city on the county’s Housing Task Force. Rocha’s persistence led the county to support sanctioned encampments and he brought the Commercial Impact Fee from that task force back to the city.
Even with these three champions, there are no current policies, provisions or plans to provide assistance to the homeless affected by the flood. They are the only group currently excluded from receiving relief funds. Many homeless folks were left with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Imagine losing everything you own—everything—and then having the entire city pretend you don’t exist. They won’t even talk about you.
Say their name. Homeless. Homeless people.
Shaunn Cartwright is an activist, housing rights advocate and co-founder of South Bay Tenants Union. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.