Despite a push to open up three nightly shelters for the homeless during winter months, the San Jose City Council unanimously decided Tuesday to move ahead with two.
City officials had crafted plans to open up two overnight warming locations—referred to as OWLs—at Bascom Community Center and Library and Roosevelt Community Center. In years past, San Jose has only opened up the temporary shelters during periods of inclement weather. San Jose is able to do so because of a California state law that gives cities the power to use publicly buildings as temporary shelter.
But with 2019’s homeless census counting 6,098 people experiencing homelessness in San Jose, city leaders have decided to keep two OWLs open on a nightly basis from Nov. 1 to April 30. There will be 60 beds available this year on a referral-basis only.
A group of homeless advocates and District 7 residents, however, wanted a third temporary shelter to open up at Tully Library. The location has been utilized as an OWL in the past. Councilwoman Maya Esparza, who represents D7, caught flak Tuesday from a number of residents during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“We all know why Tully is not being opened,” homeless advocate Gail Osmer said. “There is one person sitting up there that does not want Tully open.”
Esparza immediately responded to the comments, pointing toward some of the “serious issues” that Tully had as an OWL location, such as its small size and long lines of unhoused people waiting in the streets.
“My community is not resource rich,” Esparza said. “I guess it bothers me to hear people from other parts of the city who have strong opinions about a neighborhood in San Jose that doesn’t have much and wants to use the resources it has.”
She also added that when Tully Library closed as an OWL, Leininger Center—which is also in her district—opened as a new temporary shelter.
In a memo released hours before the meeting, Councilman Raul Peralez advocated for providing storage for participants at Roosevelt Community Center.
“I really do think that this storage and the access to it is very important in regards to the success of these overnight warming locations,” he said. “Especially if we’re going to have some of the same repeat customers overnight versus what we had before.”
San Jose’s Deputy Housing Director Ragan Henninger said they plan on using conex boxes, a shipping container-like storage unit that’s about the size of a parking space.
Putting on his lawyer cap, Councilman Lan Diep expressed concerns with the “practical implementation” of the storage containers. “How do we deal with people who go off and abandon their stuff?" he questioned. “There are things that I think we need to consider from a city standpoint and liability and just health and public safety.”
City officials will come back by the end of the fiscal year with more information about standards for storing homeless people’s belongings.
Councilwoman Pam Foley, who does not have an OWL in her district, inquired about the process for opening other temporary shelters throughout the city. Housing officials said they typically look at opening OWLs in areas with a concentration of unhoused people. They’d also need additional funds to do so.
“I just want to put it out there that we all do need to share,” Foley said. “We don’t have any tiny homes in District 9. It’s important for us to all find solutions in our district.”
HomeFirst, a non-profit that provides homelessness services in Santa Clara County, will continue to run the OWLs. Due to the increase in services, the contract’s compensation will go from $350,000 to nearly $1.5 million and last through June 30. The money comes out of a recent state grant called the Homeless Emergency Aid Program.
The OWLs will also be modified slightly and provide homeless individuals with showers at each site, a case manager during the day and storage containers to hold lost belongings for up to 30 days. Additional security will be on site to cover the gap between when the community centers close and the OWLs open.
San Jose will also partner with the Winter Faith Collaborative to develop a plan for additional homeless people who are looking for shelter during those “periods of inclement weather.”