Op-Ed: Are We Serious About Ending Homelessness—or Pushing Out Homeless People?

On Monday, Boccardo Reception Center—aka Little Orchard, or “Little Torture,” as many unhoused folks call it—ceased operations as San Jose’s largest emergency shelter. That means San Jose, a city with a million residents and 4,000 people living on the streets, no longer has a 24-hour, non-referral-based emergency shelter for men and women.

Let that sink in.

Rather than holding their usual nightly lottery to see who is admitted, they held a one-time lottery Sept. 25. Those who won the lottery secured a bed in the newly program-based shelter. Those who didn’t win were turned away—from a shelter.

Program-based shelters aren’t new, this is the same model as the highly successful Sunnyvale shelter which is currently bursting at the seams with men, women, seniors and an abundance of families. However, Sunnyvale didn’t abruptly switch from being an emergency shelter to a programming shelter and place people out on the street.

Although “Little Torture” claims only five people a night will be displaced by the new model, they’ve spent time since Sept. 25 calling other shelters to place nearly 50 people who lost the lottery. Imagine that: losing a “lottery” for shelter. People have been in a panic since losing the lottery and have been buying tents, trying to get themselves into other shelters and growing more despondent.

I’ve spoken to people at various city council, county supervisor and other local government offices and they all say they were informed of the decision only a week prior to it being implemented. But they were not made aware of the negative impact on the unhoused folks who lose the lottery—nor the true number of people affected.

I encourage the San Jose City Council and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to look into “Little Torture’s” MOU. Does it mandate an emergency shelter or a programming shelter? Does it mandate 250 emergency beds for our unhoused neighbors or 15? How can “Little Torture” unilaterally decide to push the very people they’re contracted to serve onto the street, particularly when we’re already in a crisis situation without enough shelter beds?

I question the timing of this service change when the request for proposal on the emergency Overnight Warming Locations (OWLs) is out until Oct. 10—the same day the Gilroy shelter opens. Meanwhile, the Mountain View women’s and children shelter doesn’t open until after Thanksgiving and the Winter Faith Collaborative shelters don’t open until Jan. 5.

I also question the root cause of the programming change. Is it based on directives from the San Jose Housing Department and county Office of Supportive Housing, as part of the focus on permanent supportive housing above all other viable solutions, like sanctioned encampments (Hope Village), so-called bridge housing (tiny homes), safe parking, and so forth? Are shelters being turned into warehouses of sorts, where folks are kept until their name comes up for permanent solutions?

I asked “Little Torture” why they didn’t do any media or outreach to advocates who work with unhoused folks, to avoid people being turned away after it became a programming shelter, and was told, “Well, we didn’t want you bringing a bunch of people here.”

I was flabbergasted. Is that not what a shelter is for? To house a bunch of needy people? Most of us don’t take people there because of the shelter’s horrible reputation, hence the nickname“Little Torture,” but we would have helped spread the word so people didn’t get turned away in inclement weather that didn’t trigger the OWLs.

Of all the service providers listed on the city’s homeless services landing page only three are open 24. Now it’s down to two.

Bill Wilson is a great place, but only serves people aged 18 to 24.

City Team isn’t open around the clock. It’s also religion-based, which is an issue for many unhoused folks and primarily for LGBTQ youth who were turned away by religious parents. It’s also men only and charges $5 a day after 14 days.

Little Orchard is no longer an emergency shelter.

Montgomery Street isn’t open 24 hours a day and serves only men.

Julian Street is a 24-hours location, but takes referral only and mental health clients only, although it does serve men and women.

Georgia Travis is a 24-hour shelter that only serves women and children.

Salvation Army is for men only and charge $5 a day after 14 days. It’s also religious.

According to the 2017-18 Consolidated Annual Performance Evaluation Report discussed at the Sept. 25 San Jose City Council meeting: “Based on the 2017 data, it appears that the city’s efforts to address homelessness have been successful in reducing the number of those living in encampments (-17 percent), chronically homeless (-14 percent), homeless families (-12 percent), and veterans (-6 percent).”

That’s what we consider success? We have over 4,000 people living on the streets (likely more after the upcoming homeless census) and with the city is divvying up $2.5 million in federal grants among The Health Trust, PATH, Bill Wilson Center and Home First, yet we’re still not even getting 20 percent of folks off the street? At least 138 people died on the streets last year. On average, that’s one person every three days. And most insiders expect the rate to be higher this year.

During questioning by council, it became clear that PATH is doing a much better job of getting folks into permanent housing than their competitor, Home First. For years, I’ve asked the city and county to conduct end user studies for all providers of services for unhoused people and I ask that again. To their credit, PATH has said they welcome this. Providers who do not serve their clients well should not be rewarded with any funds while providers who do, should be rewarded with said funds.

If the city and county are serious about ending homelessness and not homeless people, they will ensure that San Jose continues to operate a large, non-referral-based, 24-hour walk-in shelter for men and women; immediately conduct third party end user studies; investigate “Little Torture’s” memorandum of understanding, investigate the root cause of the programming change, not award the OWL contract to Home First—imagine someone seeking refuge in an OWL and realizing it’s the same provider who put them on the street when they lost the lottery.

Saying, “but who else can do it?” as justification for awarding the OWL contract to Home First is taking the easy way out. There’s no reason we can’t think outside of the box and have one provider supply food while another brings cots and security. Or have different agencies take on a few OWLs each. Or have OWLs open at a more convenient time instead of so ridiculously late in the evening.

They will also rapidly greatly expand safe parking without enormous city and county constraints and allow the creation of more Hope Village sites with self-governance, not needless city and county oversight. We need more focus on saving peoples lives by any means necessary and less on governing them inside the same old box.

Shaunn Cartwright is an activist, housing rights advocate and co-founder of South Bay Tenants Union. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected]


  1. It’s politcally incorrect to admit when you don’t want homeless around your home. Vagrants, drunks, druggies, dangerously mentally ill, hep c carrying folks in neighborhoods leaving human waste and drug paraphernalia may be welcome in your neighborhood but it is not in mine. Santa Clara County residents voted for housing support to the tune of $750 million and still we are shamed into believing it is not enough and we should pass more bonds to pay more? The argument I see bandied about the most is that not all homeless are druggies and they are just down on their luck but I also read account after account of homeless by choice folks who are homeless because of their own choices and homeless for over 3 to 5 years. When does it become the responsibility of the person with no housing to make a hard choice to move to a more affordable housing market and less the responsibility of the rest of society to keep paying for the refusal of individuals to recognize they cannot find a way to be functional and successful in the highest priced housing market and competitive job market? Why do results of bad choices have to fall at feet of those who made better choices? It is reported over and over that we are a nation of immigrants so why is it bad to suggest people who want a better life than the one the Bay Area can provide to them that they MIGRATE to a place more receptive to their limited skills and income? Sorry but you’re not guilting me into feeling bad for wanting a safe environment for my family and to not want to spend money I work had for and budget on folks drug and drinking habits when they have options to leave. Stop looking for handouts and thinking guilt is a motivator for compassion. If the numbers are correct for the estimated homeless in this area then the $750 million already committed should be given to them as seed money to start over as a one to me grant. It’s ridiculous the amount of money for these projects when teachers, cops, city workers can’t find housing! Give the homeless a cool million each and let’s see if they rehabilitate or put it in their arm or up their nose. Either way cash it out it’s less expensive.

  2. The topic of homeless people is one of the major ones throughout the world in each and every country. The author in the article touches very important things when it comes to this very specific topic. Great post, thanks for sharing!

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