Old tensions ran high at Tuesday’s virtual San Jose City Council meeting over a proposed site for emergency shelter for the homeless at Monterey and Bernal roads.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected at least 1,962 and killed 94 people in Santa Clara County, has created an even more urgent need to find shelter for the more than 6,000 unhoused residents in San Jose. Two weeks ago, the council declared a shelter crisis and allocated $17 million in state funding from the Homeless Housing and Prevention program to erect up to 500 prefabricated modular homes for the homeless.
Late Tuesday evening, the council settled on a site to put up the first 80 units: a 2.5-acre plot of city-owned land at Monterey and Bernal roads in District 2.
Despite the support of eight council members and the mayor—council members Johnny Khamis and Sergio Jimenez dissented—the proposal drew the ire of many residents.
Three years ago, city officials suggested using the same site for a tiny home community. The proposal, however, was shelved after an onslaught of backlash from District 2 residents who cited concern over increased crime and blight. Many of those same residents reignited their cause on Tuesday.
“Santa Teresa is a bedroom community of families that have worked hard to purchase homes and pay taxes,” Suzanne Johnson told the council. “The last three years my family and neighbors have had several run-ins with the homeless stealing and harassing us...Currently there's trash, tents [and] human waste across the street. How can this be different when they add 80 more beds right there close to our neighborhoods?”
Other residents expressed their concern with the fast-tracked process and lack of community input. The state of emergency declared in light of the pandemic has allowed city officials to bypass red tape that’s typically part of project approval.
“The residents of District 2 are rightfully outraged and it’s a shame that the city council and mayor are hiding behind the guise of bureaucracy and using a global pandemic to suppress the voices of the residents in order to push forward their agenda,” resident Michelle Liu said at the meeting.
Jimenez, who reps D2, expressed “concern and discomfort” with the pace of the process.
“Those opportunities for dialogue were quickly set aside by the current emergency that we find ourselves in,” he said. “The state, the county and the city have recognized that this current pandemic coupled with our existing housing crisis has really exposed as I see it the sort of chasm amongst our residents. These acknowledgments have led to mandates that we quickly house as many houseless residents as possible setting aside the normal course of things.”
Because of the concerns conveyed by many of his constituents, Jimenez suggested using a Caltrans site elsewhere in his district that is further away from residential neighborhoods. But his colleagues disagreed, saying the lease negotiations could be lengthy and a contractor is already poised to begin immediate construction at the Monterey and Bernal road location.
They did, however, agree to a proposal from Jimenez to create a plan for each council district that receives emergency housing and how “enhanced services,” like police patrol, litter and blight services and outreach will be implemented.
Mayor Sam Liccardo emphasized the need to use the funds for housing and not just services, citing frustrations from the governor and legislators who approved the money.
“When the news broke that we were launching on this effort on three different sites because of [Deputy City Manager] Jim Orbtal’s great work and many other members of the city team, I received congratulatory texts from the governor and 3 other members of the legislature,” Liccardo said. “They're so tired of seeing this money being spent on us really spinning our wheels rather than actually expanding inventory of housing that we critically need in our communities.”
San Jose opened its first Bridge Housing Community in the form of tiny homes earlier this year on a plot of land on Mabury Road that’s being leased from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. A second location on Felipe Avenue near the Highway 101 and I-280 intersection is also currently under construction. Habitat for Humanity, which was tasked with development of the two existing sites, will help launch the emergency shelter at Monterey and Bernal roads, as well.
On Tuesday, the council approved an additional $6 million to a previous contract with the nonprofit for its role in getting the latest site off the ground.